By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will hold an early general election in April, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, after members of his governing coalition met to discuss differences over legislation.
“The leaders of the coalition decided unanimously to dissolve parliament and go to a new election in early April,” the spokesman wrote on Twitter, quoting from a statement issued by Netanyahu’s political partners.
A coalition crisis over a military conscription bill affecting exemptions from compulsory service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men led to the decision.
Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, has been governing with a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. He heads the right-wing Likud party.
Under Israeli law, a national election had to be held by November 2019. Netanyahu’s government would remain in place until a new one is sworn in, after the April poll.
A series of corruption probes against Netanyahu and pending decisions by Israel’s attorney general on whether to follow police recommendations to indict him had raised speculation he would opt to seek a public show of confidence at the ballot box.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and has given no indication he will step down if charged.
The 69-year-old Israeli leader made no immediate comment after his meeting with the coalition leaders. Recent opinion polls have shown his popularity remains strong among Israelis.
The likelihood of an early election increased in November after Netanyahu’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government, leaving the ruling coalition with its one-seat majority.
No one in Netanyahu’s Likud has made a public challenge against him, and the party is expected to close ranks around him in the coming election.
Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party is second to Likud in opinion polls.
Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz, is seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favour of a centre-left bloc, but has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.
On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerges in a weaker position in an election.
Netanyahu first led Israel from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009. His current government has been in power since May 2015.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)