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Israel Will Hold Early Elections

Under pressure from the new Labor leader, Sharon agrees to a vote by March. Analysts say the timing may work in the premier's favor.

November 18, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — His governing coalition on the brink of dissolving, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed Thursday to hold elections by late March, at least eight months ahead of schedule.

Sharon reluctantly agreed to the accelerated timetable at a meeting with Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of the left-leaning Labor Party. Peretz has declared his intention to abandon a nearly yearlong coalition partnership with Sharon's conservative Likud Party.

"The die has been cast, and we are going to elections," Peretz, who unseated veteran statesman Shimon Peres last week, told reporters after the brief session with Sharon.

During the Israeli campaign season, which is traditionally a raucous, no-holds-barred affair, any major new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives probably will be put on hold.

That in turn could hurt Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement will face parliamentary elections in January. Progress on the peace process could have bolstered his government in the face of what is expected to be a strong challenge from the militant group Hamas, fielding legislative candidates for the first time.

At the Thursday meeting, the leaders of Israel's major parties -- Sharon, Peretz and Tommy Lapid of the opposition Shinui Party -- agreed that national elections would be held between late February and late March.

Israel's parliament, or Knesset, is set to hold a preliminary vote Monday on whether to dissolve the governing coalition, which would start the election countdown. A precise date could be finalized then.

Israel Radio reported that Sharon told Peretz that "the public does not want these elections."

However, the prime minister apparently had reconciled himself to the need for an early vote, because loss of Labor's support would have left him vulnerable to constant efforts by political foes to topple him.

"In the complicated reality in which the country finds itself, I have no intention of heading a minority government for months on end," Thursday's editions of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper quoted Sharon as saying.

With the general time period for the election now established, Sharon must decide soon whether to stay in the Likud or split off and lead a new centrist party.

Some Likud members on the far right led a fierce but unsuccessful struggle this year to block Israel's withdrawal of troops and evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, and those rebels continue to harry Sharon at every opportunity.

Even though the prime minister made it clear that he would have preferred to serve out a full term, political analysts said the timing could help him quash rivals within his party, including former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely known by the nickname Bibi.

"Blitz elections are good for Sharon, because Bibi will be caught unprepared," said Hanan Kristal, the country's leading pollster.

Polls generally indicate that Peretz, a firebrand politician who led Israel's largest trade federation, is a popular figure. However, Sharon enjoys strong public support for carrying out the Gaza withdrawal, and the polls also show that the party he leads is likely to prevail.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials increasingly focused on domestic politics, a confrontation continued between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. Israeli forces have been aggressively hunting down members of the main militant factions, particularly Islamic Jihad.

On Thursday, Israeli troops shot to death two people identified by officials as Palestinian fugitives in the northern West Bank, which has been the scene of much of the recent unrest. The Israeli army said the gunmen, identified as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, tried to run a roadblock outside the city of Jenin.

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