Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

JERUSALEM — In what is being widely viewed as a move to shore himself up in preparation for possible early elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised his Likud party cohorts by announcing primary elections for Jan. 31.

The man taken most publicly by surprise is deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom, who had been planning to mount a primary challenge and who has, by this fiat, been left with no time. Sources close to Shalom said he is investigating legal challenges to the change of date for the primary elections. As party chairman, Netanyahu is empowered to call primary elections as he sees fit; nonetheless, party regulations call for primary voting six months before the general election.

Ha’aretz political correspondent Yossi Verter claimed many in the Likud were calling the move an act of “underhanded opportunism.”

Israel’s next election is now slated to take place in late 2012. “In the realm of local politics (as opposed to the international arena) Netanyahu never misses an opportunity,” Verter wrote in Ha’aretz.

“He identified January 31, 2012, as a golden opportunity to reaffirm his leadership. For him, this will be a walk in the park. With this surprising move, Netanyahu isn’t just planning to win; he is planning to enjoy himself, at the expense of his long-time rival, Shalom.”

In terms of internal politics, Netanyahu is well poised to consolidate power. His poll numbers have risen since the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was held for five years by Hamas, and the collapse of the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of statehood at the UN. His principal rival on the right wing, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has been caught in the net of clumsy statements on Iran and on the Palestinians, and appears not to have a clear electoral message.

On the left, newly elected Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich has yet to establish a vibrant public persona or a well-defined cause. In the center, Kadima chairperson Tsippi Livni, like Shalom a former foreign minister, is struggling to gain a foothold in the polls.

Israel Radio news host Razi Barkai wondered out loud on the air yesterday if Netanyahu “knows something about anything that would bring about early elections that we don’t know. Is anyone planning on bolting the collation? Is there any attack on Iran being planned that would affect the political map?”

Related Stories