JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce Sunday night that he'll dissolve parliament to hold early elections, a move designed to fend off domestic critics and perhaps put him in a stronger position to act against Iran.
His government — Israel's most stable in years — could have remained in power until 2013. But coalition partners are challenging Mr. Netanyahu on an array of domestic issues, including the budget, drafting the ultra-Orthodox and pulling down unsanctioned settlement construction.
The Israeli leader also might fear that after U.S. elections, Washington will press Israel to refrain from attacking Iranian nuclear facilities or step up pressure to make peace with the Palestinians. So he's seeking a referendum on his leadership at a time when his popularity remains strong.
Mr. Netanyahu is expected to announce the early elections at a conference of his Likud Party on Sunday night. Likud officials have said the expected election date will be Sept. 4.
Polls suggest Mr. Netanyahu's re-election chances are good. His Likud Party is expected to win at least one-fourth of parliament's 120 seats to become the legislature's largest faction, which would position him to become prime minister for a third term. He first served in the late 1990s.
What the polls don't show is what kind of future government he might head. If voting breaks down as the surveys indicate, Mr. Netanyahu might be able to put together a more centrist coalition than his current government, which takes a hard line on peacemaking with the Palestinians and has submitted bills designed to punish groups that disagree with Israeli policy on issues such as settlements and wartime conduct.
The prime minister signaled in December that he might move up the vote when he called a snap Likud leadership race that he handily won.
Early elections talk heated up last week, but an announcement was put off as Mr. Netanyahu mourned the death of his father. The prime minister was ending the seven-day Jewish mourning period on Sunday.
Over the weekend, several Israeli commentators said a possible Israeli strike on Iran drove Mr. Netanyahu's quest for early balloting.
They reasoned that holding the vote before the U.S. presidential race in November would give Mr. Netanyahu an opportunity to order an attack in September or October, at a time when President Obama would be reluctant to publicly criticize him for fear of alienating the Jewish vote.
Netanyahu aides do not discuss the prime minister's thinking on Iran. Israel, like the West, thinks Tehran's nuclear program ultimately is designed to make bombs, and not just for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation and medical isotopes, as Iran claims.
The ostensible pretext for elections was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's veiled threat last week to bring down the government if parliament doesn't act to apply Israel's compulsory military draft to ultra-Orthodox men over the objection of ultra-Orthodox lawmakers. Both Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu and ultra-Orthodox parties sit in Netanyahu's coalition.
Another divisive issue is an Aug. 1 deadline for the government to dismantle an unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost over the objection of hard-line coalition allies and settlers.
Mass protests also are expected for the second summer in a row over Israel's high cost of living.