By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a snap Likud party leadership vote, officials said on Monday, a contest he is expected to win and which could pave the way for an early national election in Israel.
Some commentators said Netanyahu was quietly preparing for the possibility that President Barack Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship, will win a second term in November, a year before Israel's currently scheduled ballot.
Freed of campaigning interests, the Democratic president could redouble pressure on the rightist premier to accommodate the Palestinians in peacemaking, deepening political division in Israel to the Likud's detriment, many analysts predict.
Netanyahu loyalists defended the proposed January 31 Likud poll, announced with unusually late notice on Sunday night, as a measure designed to cut costs by piggybacking on a vote for the rightist party's local lists that had been set for that date.
"Let's be honest, no one really thinks that the prime minister, who is really, at the end of the day, running things well, and has wall-to-wall support in the Likud, will not be elected," said Environment Minister Gilad Erdan of the Likud, whose central committee must be convened to authorize the date.
"So why not spare the public coffer?" he told Israel Radio.
The Likud charter requires party leadership votes take place at least six months before national elections. A party official said formal moves to approve the January 31 date had yet to be taken. Netanyahu was due to address Likud lawmakers on Monday.
CARROT TO STICK
Hanan Krystal, Israel Radio's political analyst, said Netanyahu might also opt to bring forward the next Israeli general election, due in November 2013, should Obama look likely to beat Republican rivals in the U.S. ballot.
Resented among Jewish and conservative Christian voters over his handling of the Netanyahu government, Obama last week promoted his administration's efforts to secure Israel from foes like Iran.
"At the highest echelons, they have long been saying that if Obama is elected for a second term, the carrot will be replaced by a stick," Krystal said.
"In other words, the election of Netanyahu in January or February to head the Likud allows him to bring the (general) election forward in accordance with Obama's prospects, which are currently good," he said, adding that, if rescheduled, the national ballot would likely be held in mid-2012.
An Israeli government official said Netanyahu was keeping to the November 2013 general election date.
"There is no reason why the government should not serve its full term," the official said. "The coalition is stable."
The Likud straddles a wide conservative-religious coalition, but cracks have appeared among some of Netanyahu's key allies.
A draft corruption indictment against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right Israel Beiteinu could force him from office. Lawyers for Lieberman, who denies wrongdoing, are scheduled to meet Israel's attorney-general in the middle of this month in a last-ditch appeal to shelve the charges.
Another powerful coalition partner, Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Orthodox Jewish party Shas, has been dogged by allegations of mismanaging a forest fire in northern Israel last year. A state audit on the affair is due out within months.
Netanyahu has enjoyed approval ratings of between 40 percent and 60 percent in recent months, a period in which he addressed the United Nations on his peace vision, rode out an Israeli cost-of-living protest, and authorized a prisoner swap with Hamas that repatriated a soldier held in Gaza for five years.
He also faces little threat from the political opposition, whose leading party, the centrist Kadima, has been riven by infighting.
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Elizabeth Piper)