JERUSALEM (REUTERS)- A dispute between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister over broadcast regulation sparked speculation on Sunday (March 19) that Netanyahu could seek an election two years ahead of schedule.
A national vote could delay any US peace moves under new President Donald Trump and also put off Netanyahu's possible indictment over suspected corruption.
The speculation came after Netanyahu said late on Saturday that he was abandoning an agreement with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a key coalition partner, on establishing a new public broadcasting authority to replace the existing one.
Netanyahu cited concerns over job losses for his abrupt change of heart.
The prime minister flew to China for a three-day official visit on Sunday, leaving behind talk of a coalition crisis and an early election in Israeli newspapers.
The Israeli media quoted Netanyahu as telling ministers from his Likud party that he would dissolve the government if Kahlon didn't fall into line. Kahlon heads the Kulanu party, a centre-right partner in Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition.
Some commentators said Netanyahu hoped a snap election would postpone a decision, expected within weeks, by the attorney general on possible criminal charges.
Others speculated that Netanyahu, after a visit by a US envoy last week, was unsettled by the course the Trump administration might set in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and wanted to delay diplomacy.
Netanyahu, 67, is a suspect in two cases, one involving the receipt of gifts from businessmen and the other related to conversations he held with an Israeli newspaper publisher about limiting competition in the news sector in exchange for more positive coverage.
No charges have yet been brought against Netanyahu, who was reelected two years ago and has denied wrongdoing.
Israel is not due to hold a general election until November 2019 but many coalition governments have not lasted a full term. "A decision to call new elections will suspend the investigations and might even do away with them," commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
"If he survives (the ballot) he will argue ... the people have cleared him of any wrongdoing. And then he will form the same coalition he has grown fed up with today," Barnea said.
Yariv Levin, a Likud cabinet minister, denied any link between Netanyahu's decision on the broadcasting authority and the police probes.
Under coalition agreements, Likud has the final word on communications issues, Levin told Army Radio. Two other Likud ministers voiced opposition to an early ballot.
In the Maariv newspaper, commentator Ben Caspit said a new election would buy Netanyahu another six to 12 months to gear up for an "ultimate deal" from Trump on peace with the Palestinians and the future of Jewish settlements.
"(Netanyahu) now realises just how misplaced the right wing's adulation over Donald Trump the Messiah was," Caspit wrote.
Trump has rolled back on any quick move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and has called on Netanyahu to "hold back on settlements for a bit."