Israeli government calls early elections in April

Israel’s government has announced early elections for the beginning of April, setting the stage for a campaign on terms that appear favourable to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.  

Just weeks ago, the government looked on the verge of a chaotic collapse but Mr Netanyahu and his coalition partners announced Monday they had agreed unanimously to keep the government together until the election.    

"With God’s help, we will win," Mr Netanyahu said. He hailed his government’s "outstanding achievements", including Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Polls show Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party on course to win the most seats in the election, despite recommendations by Israeli police that the prime minister should be charged with corruption. 

Mr Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and Israeli prosecutors have not yet decided whether to indict him. The elections means that prosecutors will probably not announce any decision until after the campaign.  

The justice ministry said its work on the corruption cases was "continuing normally" despite the election announcement. “This is an organized and professional work procedure that doesn’t depend on political events,” the ministry said in a statement.   

Mr Netanyahu is due to travel to Washington in late March to address the annual conference of Aipac, the major pro-Israel US group, and will almost certainly meet with Donald Trump at the White House.

The high-profile visit will allow Mr Netanyahu to present himself as a global statesman just days before Israeli voters head to the polls. The election will reportedly be held on April 9, although no final date has been confirmed. 

Mr Netanyahu, 69, has been prime minister for 12 years during two separate stints in office. If he remains in power in July, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s 70-year history. 

Recent polls show Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party would emerge as the biggest party in an election, winning around 30 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, the same number it has now.  

There is one major political wildcard that could complicate Mr Netanyahu’s march towards re-election: Benny Gantz, the 59-year-old former chief of staff of the Israeli military. 

Mr Gantz, who left the army three years ago after commanding Israeli troops in the 2014 Gaza war, has intimated he plans enter politics.   

Polls show that if Mr Gantz forms his own political party he could win up to 16 seats. But he would divide the anti-Netanyahu opposition and leave the prime minister as the clear winner of an election. 

However, if Mr Gantz were to join the centrist Yesh Atid party it would be a major boost to the main challengers to Mr Netanyahu. A poll for Israel’s Channel 13 showed that in such a scenario, Yesh Atid would win 26 seats while Mr Netanyahu’s Likud would win 29.