JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to call elections in mid-February 2013, more than six months early, Israeli media and ministers said on Wednesday.
In recent weeks, speculation has been rife that Netanyahu, who continues to ride high in the polls, might bring forward elections scheduled for next October, rather than try to pass a controversial new budget before the vote.
Media reports pointed out that the premier himself, during a closed meeting on Tuesday, said he would not hesitate to call early elections if it looked impossible to pass the budget beforehand.
Multiple media reports cited February 12 as the likeliest date.
Netanyahu is trying to pass an austerity budget, prepared by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, that commentators say has virtually no chance of being adopted by the end of this year.
"The prime minister is still trying to present a responsible budget, but if it isn't possible there will be elections in mid-February," Transportation Minister Israel Katz, a Netanyahu confidant, told Israeli public radio.
He said parliament could be dissolved just a few days after it begins its winter session on October 15.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told military radio that early elections "are a fait accompli given that discussions on the budget haven't even started yet."
Other signs pointing to early elections include unprecedented criticism by Netanyahu of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who left the Labour party to form his own faction and enter the government.
For nearly four years, the two politicians have presented a united front, but in recent days Netanyahu has reportedly accused Barak of "maneouvering behind his back" with the United States in a bid to present himself as a "moderate" compared to Netanyahu's "extremist" positions, local media said.
And Israel's Channel 10 reported on Tuesday that Netanyahu had rejected a request by Barak that be guaranteed the defence portfolio in the country's next government.
Katz offered his own criticism of Barak on Wednesday, saying the defence minister "plotted against the prime minister in recent discussions with the United States, where he wanted to present himself as a better partner," he said.