Israel’s parliament formally kicked off campaign season early on Tuesday after approving January 22 as the date for snap elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the clear frontrunner.
The dissolution of the parliament, or Knesset, was approved by 100 votes to none in a third reading which took place shortly after midnight following a nearly nine-hour session in the 120-seat chamber.
Opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu and the rightwing and ultra-Orthodox parties allied with him, are set for a comfortable victory, given the fragmentation of the opposition and the lack of alternative candidate for the premiership.
“In less than 100 days the people of Israel will decide who will lead them in the face of the greatest security challenges which we have known since the founding of the state,” Netanyahu said at the start of the debate, in a clear reference to the Iranian nuclear threat.
Voters would also have to decide who would lead the country through “the toughest economic crisis the world has known in the past 80 years,” he said, presenting January 22 as the best date for the vote.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that the gravest strategic threat facing the Jewish state is that of Iran developing atomic weapons, despite Tehran’s insistence that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes.
“Anyone who belittles the threat which a nuclear Iran poses to Israel is not worthy of leading Israel for even one day,” the Israeli leader told MPs in what the Haaretz newspaper described as “a blatant campaign speech.”
“Today we have the capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites; capabilities that we did not possess in the past,” he said, without elaborating.
On Tuesday, most Israeli papers were focused on whether several key figures would re-enter politics to contest the vote, among them ex-premier Ehud Olmert, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and Aryeh Deri who led the ultra-Orthodox Shas party until 2001 when he was jailed for three years on corruption charges.
Deri is understood to be looking to return to head the party, replacing its current hawkish leader Eli Yishai, who is serving as interior minister, in a move which could have ramifications for Netanyahu, the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said.
“The changes in Shas’s leadership are likely to have an impact on the political map, and could have a significant impact on Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of being asked to form the next coalition government,” the paper said, indicating Deri’s return could “change things dramatically.”
Deri, it said, was considered to be “far less rightwing” than Yishai, had “very good relations” with a number of leftwing politicians, and did not have a good relationship with Netanyahu.
“One of the results of Deri’s return to Shas is that the party is expected to be the lynchpin between left and right after the elections,” it said.
A decision on the party’s leadership is expected to be taken by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yossef in the coming days, press reports said.
Following the late-night vote, an election recess immediately came into force, officially kicking off the start of a campaign which informally went into motion last week when Netanyahu announced he was seeking to call snap elections.
Netanyahu has blamed the need for early elections on a coalition deadlock over the passage of a budget packed with austerity measures, but commentators say it was a move to capitalise on his current standing in the polls, which put him as the sole realistic contender for the premiership.
The current ruling coalition, which includes the centrist Independence party headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, holds 66 seats, but a poll published last week in Haaretz showed that even without Barak’s faction, Netanyahu and his allies looked set to increase their number of seats to 68.
By comparison, the opposition — comprising centrist, left-wing and Arab parties — would win just 52.