JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed on Wednesday for a “clear mandate” from voters in the early election he called, with opinion polls showing the right-wing leader on track for a fourth term.
A day after Netanyahu fired centrist members of his feuding governing coalition, faction leaders in parliament agreed on a March 17 date for the election and legislators approved the Knesset’s dissolution in a preliminary vote.
Yair Lapid, the dismissed finance minister, and Tzipi Livni, who held the justice portfolio, had irked Netanyahu by echoing international criticism of the predominantly rightist government’s policy of expanding Jewish settlement on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state.
They also opposed cabinet-approved legislation to anchor in law the concept of Israel as a Jewish nation-state. Critics of the bill, which still faces parliamentary hurdles, say it is discriminatory towards Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority.
Two opinion polls issued on Tuesday predicted Netanyahu’s Likud would emerge as the largest party, but short of an outright majority in the 120-seat Knesset, if the national ballot was held now.
That would leave Netanyahu well-positioned to form what would likely be the most right-wing government in Israel’s 66-year history, comprised of his current ultra-nationalist partners and possible Orthodox Jewish allies, and devoid of now alienated moderates.
Netanyahu’s five-party administration, which took office only last year, has been unraveling over an array of issues, including the 2015 budget and the nation-state bill.
“The coming election is about one question - who will lead the country in the face of the tremendous challenges facing Israel - security, economic, regional,” Netanyahu said in public remarks to Likud legislators.
He appealed against the kind of split in right-wing voting in the previous election in January 2013 that left Likud with 18 seats in parliament compared with the 13 and 12 captured by two ultra-nationalist parties that subsequently joined his coalition.
“Whoever wants to give a clear mandate to lead the country to a prime minister from Likud needs to give many votes to Likud,” Netanyahu said. “That is the main lesson of our experience from the past years. That is the challenge for this election campaign.”
But Israelis’ mounting security concerns, fueled by a July-August Gaza war in which their cities came under constant rocket attack and heightened violence over a contested holy site in Jerusalem, could make Netanyahu more vulnerable.
For Palestinians, the Israeli opinion polls predicting a Netanyahu victory meant there was no chance of restarting U.S.-sponsored statehood talks that collapsed in April.
“In the event that the upcoming Israeli elections produce a radical racist right-wing government, it will put to an end once and for all to the possibility of a return to negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister al-Malki told al-Ayyam newspaper.
Israel had not been due to hold an election until 2017, but Netanyahu, accusing Lapid and Livni of undermining him, dismissed them on Tuesday and announced he wanted to dissolve parliament “as soon as possible”.
Once a final vote on dissolving the legislature is held next week, Netanyahu will lead a now-minority government until a new administration is sworn in after the election.
The coalition crisis came to a head after Netanyahu rejected a proposal by Lapid, a former TV talk show host whose Yesh Atid party came in a surprise second in 2013, to cancel value added tax for first-time home buyers.
Economists said the tax break would have weighed heavily on the 2015 budget, whose approval by parliament had been due by March 31 but could be pushed by the election and subsequent coalition-building into the summer.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller