Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced this week that he is seeking a mandate for his peace process policies from the Israeli people.
Armed with such a mandate – in the form of a victory in the country’s first direct elections for prime minister – Peres would have tacit public backing for offering an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria.
The mandate would also give him a stronger hand when Israel and the Palestinians begin their permanent-status negotiations.
Those talks, which will cover the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are scheduled to begin in May – about the time Israel would hold its national elections.
Peres publicly announced this week what he had already been widely reported as having decided in private: that he was issuing a call for early national elections.
“I have decided to call elections as early as is legally possible,” Peres said Sunday night at a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Peres did not announce a specific date for the elections, which was expected to be determined later in the week, after consultations were held between Labor Party and opposition leaders.
Last week, May 28 was widely touted as the likely date for the elections, which were originally scheduled for Oct. 29.
Earlier Sunday, Peres dispatched Labor Party officials to hold consultations with representatives from Israel’s other political parties.
With broad support expected in the Knesset for holding early elections, a Labor Party initiative to be submitted later this week to dissolve the Parliament in preparation for the elections is virtually assured passage.
In making the call Sunday for early elections, Peres acknowledged that the peace negotiations with Syria were taking longer than he had thought, adding that it was time for his government to get a mandate from the people.
He said he had rejected a proposal to call early elections immediately after the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin because “the country was overcome with shock, and so was I. I could not allow it to overpower us.”
“I feel now that the period of instability is over,” he added. “I am convinced that in order to continue and bring about new achievements, I have to renew the mandate of the government and myself.”
Peres rejected accusations made recently by opposition leaders that he was moving up the date for elections to exploit the Labor Party’s gain in popularity in the wake of the Rabin assassination.
A Gallup Poll released last Friday gave Peres 52 percent of the vote for prime minister, compared to 30 percent for his leading rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his remarks, Peres outlined the Labor government’s achievements since it took power in July 1992 – including the historic peace accords Israel reached separately with the Palestinians and the Jordanians.
Peres called for a short campaign period and urged all sides to run clean and civilized races.
The news conference came after Peres held a day of consultations with Labor officials. It also followed a meeting with President Ezer Weizman, during which Peres informed him of his decision to move up the date for elections.
Netanyahu, speaking at a news conference held immediately after Peres made his remarks, said he would accept early elections and that the opposition would not bicker over the date for the balloting.
Netanyahu also said that if he were elected, Israel would remain on the Golan and would seek to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We believe this is the only way to stabilize a situation many in Israel feel has gotten out of control,” he said, adding that a Likud government would ensure regional peace and security.
Peres met Sunday with members of the Meretz Party, the junior partners in the governing coalition, before he made his announcement at the news conference.
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and faction head Ran Cohen gave the Meretz Party’s support to holding early elections – but only after receiving assurances from Peres that the campaign and voting would not interfere with the ongoing negotiations with Syria.
Spokesmen from Israel’s other political parties also voiced their backing for early elections.