Netanyahu ally says Israel may need early elections

KONFRONTASI-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should seek early elections if his coalition allies continue to bicker in public, Israel's defense minister said on Sunday.

Netanyahu's government has been torn by differences over proposed cuts to the 2015 budget, policy towards Palestinians in Jerusalem, and a Jewish nation-state bill that critics say would discriminate against Arab citizens.

Speculation has been rife that Israel's elections may come much sooner than the scheduled 2017, but Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon was the highest ranking official to confirm the possibility in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 television.

"The current situation cannot continue. This is a government that faces surprises everyday, we have an unnatural coalition," Ya'alon said in reference to the constant feuding among the far-right and centrist parties in Netanyahu's government.

"If it goes on this way, it would be better to hold an election as soon as possible," Ya'alon said, cautioning that "holding frequent elections doesn't broadcast stability."

An opinion poll published by the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper on Sunday said that although his popularity was falling, Netanyahu would nonetheless almost certainly win a fourth term as prime minister if elections were held today.

Israeli law mandates elections be held every four years, however parliament may be dissolved sooner by a majority vote and Israel has held five national votes in the past 15 years.

The last ballot was staged in January 2013. With the government facing problems trying to secure parliamentary approval for next year's budget, Israeli pundits have suggested that a new election might be held by the middle of 2015.

Perhaps looking to calm tensions, Netanyahu delayed a vote at Sunday's cabinet meeting on the contentious nationality bill. He says the legislation will cement Israel's status as a Jewish nation state, while centrist allies oppose it as divisive toward the country's Arab minority.

The prime minister scolded ministers about their in-fighting, and hinted he might push for an early ballot if political order was not restored.

"I hope that we will be able to resume proper conduct. That's what the public expects of us because that is the only way to run the country. If not, we will draw conclusions," he said in televised comments.

The Haaretz poll showed Netanyahu's approval rating had fallen to 38 percent, compared with 77 percent during the war against Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip in August.

But the same survey showed the center-right would still win a majority in parliament, with the prime minister's own Likud group likely to carry on as Israel's predominant party.[MR/REUTERS]