Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday his decision to bring forward to January the internal elections for his ruling right-wing Likud party.
"I want to hold the vote over the Likud leadership on January 31," he told members of his party at a faction meeting in the Knesset.
Netanyahu said moving the primary forward would save "a good few million shekels" because it would be held on the same day as the Likud party's convention.
He added that it was "important that we don't enter internal conflict and that we remain free to deal, as the leadership party, with the big challenges facing us -- security, diplomatic, social and economic ones."
The decision to hold the Likud primaries on January 31 emerged late on Sunday, in a move described by the Israeli press as a "political bombshell."
Under the party's constitution, leadership primaries must be held up to six months before general elections, which are currently due to take place in 2013.
Netanyahu is expected to comfortably win re-election to the Likud leadership, and the move was widely seen by commentators as a bid to capitalise on his good standing in the wake of soldier Gilad Shalit's release and his dominance within the party.
Bringing forward the primaries would also allow him to exploit the weakness of the opposition Kadima party, whose leader Tzipi Livni is facing strong internal opposition, press commentators said.
Vice premier Silvan Shalom, who has said he would run in any leadership contest, is adamantly opposed to the plan to bring the vote forward, and is planning to take legal action to challenge the move, which his associates said was a violation of the party's constitution, press reports said.
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Without mentioning him by name, Netanyahu rejected Shalom's claim on Monday, saying that "our movement is democratic, transparent, it has a constitution, rules and precedents. Anyone can present candidacy."
Netanyahu also denied rumours that a slot in the Likud would be reserved for Defence Minister Ehud Barak, adding that Barak had made no such a request.
Education Minister Gideon Saar rushed to praise the move, which he said "will strengthen the Likud."
"The public wants a unified Likud. In (opposition parties) Kadima and the Labour there are internal battles," he said in a statement, urging support for the early primary and for Netanyahu's candidacy.
"The stronger Netanyahu is, the stronger the Likud will be," Saar said.
The Likud Central Committee will meet next Thursday to vote on Netanyahu's proposal.
The move will mean the leadership election takes place on the same date as the Likud Convention when the party's 120,000 members meet to vote for its representatives to various party institutions.
The last time Likud held a leadership contest was in August 2007 when the party was still in opposition.
At the time, Netanyahu won 73.2 percent of the vote, while his extreme right-wing challenger Moshe Feiglin gained 23.4 percent and a little-known third candidate, Danny Danon, took 3.4 percent.
Feiglin has already said he would run again for the party's leadership.
Likud holds 27 seats in the 120-member parliament.