Israel to hold early elections in April

Israel's government decided Monday to hold early elections in April with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggling to keep together a one-seat majority in parliament as he also faces potential corruption charges. Despite Netanyahu's recent legal and political troubles, polls have indicated he would remain prime minister after new elections, putting him in line to become Israel's longest-serving premier. Heads of parties in Netanyahu's coalition agreed to hold the polls in early April "in the name of budgetary and national responsibility," a statement issued on their behalf said. The government was preparing a bill to dissolve the Knesset, or parliament, and hold elections on April 9, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said. Elections were not due until November, but there has been speculation the coalition would not last that long. Netanyahu laid out what he sees as his achievements and said he hoped for a similar coalition to the current one, seen as the most right-wing in Israel's history. "We ask for a clear mandate from the voter to continue to lead the state of Israel in our own way," he said. The decision comes with the coalition struggling to agree on a key bill related to ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the military like their secular counterparts. Ultra-Orthodox parties hold 13 seats out of the coalition's 61, giving them signficant influence. - 'Hope is returning' - Netanyahu's coalition was left with a one-seat majority after defence minister Avigdor Lieberman stepped down in November over a controversial Gaza ceasefire deal. His resignation cost the coalition five seats. At the time, Netanyahu worked to rescue the coalition and managed to keep it on track for weeks as he faced criticism over the Gaza truce. He said elections then would be irresponsible due to the sensitive security situation facing the country -- an apparent reference to an upcoming military operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon that was announced earlier this month. Asked Monday about his earlier comments arguing against elections, he said the tunnel operation was now nearly complete. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Labour party chairman Avi Gabbay, part of the Zionist Union alliance, welcomed new elections. "Hope is returning to Israel today and you can breathe a sigh of relief," Livni said. "On his way out, Netanyahu will try to destroy what is left of Israeli democracy and we will stand as a wall against any such attempt." - Tumultuous campaign - Netanyahu is under mounting pressure over a series of corruption investigations. Police have recommended his indictment in three different probes and the attorney general is considering how to proceed. Netanyahu is however not required to step down if indicted -- only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted -- and polls have indicated his Likud party would remain the largest in parliament after new elections. Some analysts believe he would be better positioned to face potential charges with a fresh mandate. However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the centre-right Kulanu party says he believes any prime minister should resign if indicted. Netanyahu has been prime minister for a total of more than 12 years, from 1996 to 1999 and again since 2009. He could next year surpass the record set by Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion, who spent more than 13 years in office. The election campaign is sure to be tumultuous, with Netanyahu's opponents likely seeking to erode his reputation as Israel's "Mr. Security". Although the premier's security credentials took a hit over the Gaza ceasefire, Israel's centre-left opposition has been in disarray and may find it difficult to mount a serious challenge. Netanyahu has also benefited from strong backing from US President Donald Trump. A senior White House official said as a result of the election the Trump administration was now evaluating when it would publish its long-awaited Middle East peace plan. "The upcoming election in Israel on April 9 is one of many factors the administration is considering in evaluating the timing of the release of the peace plan," the official said. In his comments on Monday, Netanyahu cited Trump's decision to declare Jerusalem Israel's capital and move the US embassy there -- a major victory for Israel. But wildcard figures could emerge in the campaign, such as former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, with polls showing he could perform well in elections if he decides to join a party. Early elections are the norm in Israel. No Israeli government has served out its full term in some 30 years.