Netanyahu calls early primaries to 'stay one step ahead'

Bibi: enjoying good poll ratings

Bibi: enjoying good poll ratings

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised his party colleagues on Sunday by announcing that Likud leadership primaries will take place in less than two months.

The move is seen as an indication that the prime minister expects early elections and is trying to get the leadership contest over while he believes he is popular within his party.

On Monday, Mr Netanyahu explained to a meeting of the Likud parliamentary faction that had he decided to hold the leadership contest on January 31 because the party would be voting for convention delegates on that day anyway and it would save it money.

"Aside from the savings," he told the Knesset members, "we will be free, as a leading movement, to deal with the security and economic challenges facing us."

Rivals to Mr Netanyahu are expected to be Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who ran against him in the 2005 primaries, and Moshe Feiglin. Mr Feiglin is leader of the ultra-right wing Likud faction, "Jewish Leadership", and has already tried twice, unsuccessfully, to be elected as the party's leader.

Mr Shalom has yet to announce his intention to stand, though he privately expressed his outrage at the prime minister's decision to hold the primaries before he has a chance to organise his campaign. Mr Feiglin has confirmed that he plans to run again.

The early primaries are seen in political circles as a signal that, while the current government can remain power until mid-2013, the prime minister is planning to hold elections some time in 2012 and is trying to settle the leadership issue in advance.

"Bibi is worried that Lieberman may decide to topple the coalition," explained one Likud MK this week, "and wants to be at least one step ahead. Now he knows that he can beat any other contender within Likud, so why wait?"

The prime minister is currently enjoying relatively high ratings in the polls after the release of Gilad Shalit and the Palestinian Authority's failure in its bid for UN membership. In addition, the dissatisfaction with his government engendered by the summer's wave of protests seems to have petered out.

    Last updated: 12:42pm, December 8 2011