Israel to hold snap vote as Netanyahu gambles on return

Israeli political leaders agreed Wednesday to hold a snap election next March, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gambling on gains for the right and his return to power.

Jerusalem: Israeli political leaders agreed Wednesday to hold a snap election next March, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gambling on gains for the right and his return to power.

Parliament`s spokesman said the vote would be held on March 17, after Netanyahu tore apart his fractious coalition government by firing two centrist ministers and calling for the early election.

With tensions with the Palestinians running high, polls show Netanyahu`s Likud and other rightwing parties likely to increase their share of the vote from the last election only last year.

Another win for the Israeli right would leave little hope for Middle East peace talks, after the last round of negotiations collapsed with no progress and following a spate of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

"After consultations between different parties, it has been decided to hold elections on March 17," parliament spokesman Eran Sidis told AFP, adding that the procedure to adopt a law to dissolve parliament would begin on Wednesday.

Lawmakers were to vote on the preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the 120-member Knesset, which must pass three readings with an absolute majority.

It was not clear how long it would take for the bill to win final approval.

Late Tuesday, Netanyahu said he was formulating a law to dissolve parliament "as soon as possible" although such a bill had already been tabled by four opposition parties earlier in the week.

The last general election was in January 2013, with the next poll not officially slated until November 2017.

Cracks in Netanyahu`s right-leaning coalition emerged over the 2015 budget and a contentious bill aimed at enshrining Israel`s status as the Jewish state in law, a move critics say would institutionalise discrimination against minorities including Arabs.

The crisis came to a head on Tuesday, when Netanyahu fired two key ministers: Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads HaTnuah. 

The two parties combined account for 25 of the government`s 68 seats.Netanyahu accused them of "acting against the government from within" and hatching a plot to overthrow him. 

"It`s called a putsch," he said in a televised address shortly after firing them.

According to the latest polls, Netanyahu`s Likud is expected to win 22 to 24 seats in the next election, compared with the 18 it currently holds.

Another rightwing government would reduce the chances of resuming the Middle East peace process, observers say, after the last, US-backed negotiations collapsed amid recriminations in April, notably over the issue of Israel`s settlement building on Palestinian territory.

Hardline ministers in Netanyahu`s coalition have pushed to step up the construction of Jewish settler homes in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, drawing international condemnation and angering Palestinians who want that land for their future state.

Netanyahu has already indicated that he would like to renew his traditional alliance with his party`s "natural allies" the ultra-Orthodox, who were relegated to the opposition in the last election.

Jewish Home, a far-right national-religious party headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett which strongly backs settlement building, is expected to see the strongest gains in the vote, securing 16-17 seats compared with the 12 it won in 2013.

Centrist parties like Yesh Atid and HaTnuah are expected to see major losses. The left, including the once-dominant Labour Party, is also expected to fare poorly.

The vote call comes amid a fresh wave of violence that has set Israel on edge, including regular unrest in Jerusalem and a series of deadly "lone wolf" attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.

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