Israeli elections scheduled for April
JERUSALEM - Israel's government decided Monday to hold early elections in April with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu struggling to keep together a one-seat majority in parliament as he also faces potential corruption charges in the months ahead.
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 had long been speculation the coalition would not last that long, especially in recent weeks.
Netanyahu, speaking to journalists, 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.
"The current coalition is, in my eyes, the core of the next coalition," Netanyahu said.
"We ask for a clear mandate from the voter to continue to lead the state of Israel in our own way."
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 over policy.
'Hope is returning'
Netanyahu's coalition was left with a one-seat majority in parliament following Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman's resignation in November over a controversial Gaza ceasefire deal.
His resignation removed his Yisrael Beitenu party's five seats from the coalition.
At the time, Netanyahu worked to rescue the coalition and managed to keep it on track for several more weeks as he faced criticism over the Gaza truce.
He argued 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 told journalists.
"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."
Netanyahu is under mounting pressure over a series of corruption investigations into his affairs.
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 electoral 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 upcoming election campaign is sure to be tumultuous, with Netanyahu's opponents likely seeking to erode his reputation as Israel's "Mr. Security."
The premier's electoral appeal has rested in large part on his security credentials, which took a hit over the Gaza ceasefire that his right-wing rivals opposed.
At the same time, Israel's centre-left opposition has been in disarray and may find it difficult to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu and his right-wing partners.
Netanyahu has also benefited from strong backing from US President Donald Trump's White House.
In his comments on Monday, the premier 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.