One of Israel’s more improbable but strongest political partnerships of recent years was showing cracks Tuesday, amid increasing speculation that general elections are approaching.

In a rare instance of discord, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a swipe at Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a meeting on the upcoming budget. In the meeting, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu accused Barak of fomenting tension between the Israeli and US governments during a recent visit to the US.

According to a Channel 2 News report, Steinitz told Netanyahu to watch out for Barak as he would sabotage their efforts to pass an unpopular proposed budget. Netanyahu reportedly responded that the budget wasn’t the only issue they had to be wary of, stating that “Barak went to the US to play the role of the moderate ‘savior,’ reconciling between the sides” over the best way to grapple with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear drive.

Netanyahu’s rare rebuke of Barak may reflect his new frustration with the defense minister who, despite his left-of-center political views regarding the Palestinians, had until recently appeared to agree with the prime minister on the urgent need for a preemptive military strike on Iran.

Barak has recently backed away from the imminent imperative to strike Iran, however, leaving Netanyahu somewhat isolated in the face of broad US and domestic opposition to a strike on Iran, which in turn, makes it unlikely the prime minister would order such an attack.

“It is no secret that in closed cabinet meetings, and sometimes in public, Barak holds different opinions than those of most of his fellow cabinet members — including the prime minister — on matters such as the Palestinians, socio-economic affairs and the relationship with the US,” said Barak’s office in response to the Channel 2 report. “Yet in his trips to the US, Barak defends the government’s positions and tries to contribute, often successfully, to lowering tensions between the governments and strengthening security ties.”

Channel 10 News reported that the fallout between the two was due to Netanyahu’s refusal to guarantee Barak the defense portfolio in a future government.

Barak, who broke away from the Labor party last year to form his Atzmaut (Independence) party, is believed to have little chance of clearing the electoral threshold in the next election and getting back into the Knesset; he would therefore be dependent on Netanyahu to re-appoint him to the post. But if the prime minister were to do so, he would risk internal strife in his Likud party, many of whose members dislike and distrust the relatively dovish Barak, and several of whose senior members covet the job of defense minister.

Still, both offices Tuesday denied that Barak had made a request to be guaranteed as defense minister if Netanyahu wins the next elections.

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu held meetings with coalition members on passing the budget. Analysts said little progress was made, bolstering the sense that the country will indeed head toward elections early next year rather than in the fall as scheduled.

“If we don’t get a majority in favor of a responsible budget, we will complete a four-year term and go to elections,” Netanyahu reportedly said in closed talks, adding that the decision on whether or not to hold elections will be made by October 15. The deadline for passing the budget is November 1.

The last elections were held on February 10, 2009. Speculation on Tuesday night was that Netanyahu might call the next elections in February next year, possibly on February 12, with two likely alternatives — February 5 and February 19.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) confirmed that elections would likely be moved up. “The finance minister will not allow the budget to remain at an impasse,” he said, “and if the choice is between injuring the economy or holding elections, the choice will be elections,” he told Channel 10 News.

Labor party chair Shelly Yachimovich on Tuesday urged Netanyahu to call early elections, saying that it would “put an end to the uncertainty and the lack of leadership characterized first and foremost by the absence of a state budget.” Yachimovich said that the Labor party, with a cohesive social and economic agenda, is prepared to offer the Israeli public a “responsible and serious alternative” to the current government.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz also made a pitch on Tuesday for early elections, saying that his Kadima party is ready for elections “at any time” and that it is time to “replace Netanyahu and restore hope to the Israeli people.” Referring to Netanyahu’s recent statements about “red lines” regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Mofaz said that “the Israeli public also has red lines,” including on the cost of living, a state budget and political understandings with neighboring countries.

“Netanyahu crossed all of those lines,“ according to Mofaz, “and abandoned them on the altar of his one-dimensional Iranian policy.” Mofaz claimed Kadima represented the only credible alternative to a Likud-led coalition.

Opinion polls consistently point to another Netanyahu victory if elections are held in the near future, with his Likud party set to slightly increase its Knesset representation from its current 27 seats. The Labor party (13 seats in the 2009 elections) is set to gain ground, most polls, show, with Kadima (28 seats in 2009) heading for a drastic fall.

In a discussion among political analysts on Army Radio on Tuesday morning, the consensus was that Netanyahu would be returned as prime minister, though possibly with a slightly different coalition. It was noted that Yachimovich, the Labor leader, has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition despite their differences on how to tackle Israeli-Palestinian relations, provided she would have a central role in socioeconomic policy. And neither has new would-be political player Yair Lapid, an ex-TV news presenter and son of former minister Yosef Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party will be running in elections for the first time.

Another potentially relevant political player, the analysts noted, is former Shas party chairman and minister Aryeh Deri, who has said he wants to return to politics having served jail time for fraud and other offenses. If Deri sets up a new party, he might draw votes away from Shas, and might be more inclined than Shas to join a centrist, Labor-led coalition, the analysts said. But they also noted that Deri is rebuilding his relationship with Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and might return to politics with Shas.

Analyst Raviv Drucker said in the discussion that former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was being wooed by Yachimovich as a possible Labor number two, and that internal polls suggested this might boost Labor’s Knesset standing. But he noted that Livni has made no decision on a return to politics, having lost the Kadima leadership to Mofaz earlier this year.