Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party will coast to victory in the national vote, which he said in a televised announcement could be held within three months.
Netanyahu, in office since 2009, cited bickering among his partners in the governing coalition over cuts in the budget as a main reason for opting for a new ballot. Israel was not due to hold a parliamentary election until October 2013.
“At this time, in the face of the turmoil around us, security and economic, it is my obligation as prime minister to put the national interest above all. Therefore I have decided for the benefit of Israel to hold elections now and as quickly as possible,” he said.
The ballot, which Israeli commentators predicted would be held in January or February seemed likely to focus on two main issues: Iran’s nuclear programme and the Israeli economy.
But an election campaign would not necessarily have an impact on any Israeli timetable for possible military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In a speech to the United Nations last month Netanyahu signalled any strike against Iran could wait until next spring or summer when he said Tehran might be on the brink of building a nuclear bomb.
Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, says Iran is enriching uranium with the aim of producing an atomic weapon. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu will remain as prime minister in a transition government when parliament dissolves itself in the coming days.
He presides over a five-party coalition government that controls 66 seats in the 120-member parliament.