Israeli politicians gear for elections

JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (JTA) – Israel’s political system has shifted into election mode.

After Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s dramatic announcement in the Knesset on Tuesday that he would agree to early elections, representatives from the governing coalition and the opposition are planning to meet early next week to begin negotiations on setting a date for the vote.

On Wednesday, members of the opposition made it clear that they want to hold the elections for prime minister and the Knesset as soon as March to prevent Barak from reaching what they perceive as a hasty peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But observers suggested that the negotiators ultimately are likely to settle on May, which would be two years after Barak was voted into office.

“You want elections. I am ready for elections,” Barak said Tuesday as the Knesset was poised to give its overwhelming backing to five separate opposition bills calling for new elections.

All of those bills were later approved – but because that happened after Barak’s announcement, the votes were largely just a formality.

Since several parties dropped out of his coalition on the eve of July’s Camp David summit, Barak has led a minority government with the support of only 30 of the 120 Knesset members.

Political observers have suggested that Barak’s sole hope for re-election is to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the period leading up to the vote. The election then would essentially be a referendum on the agreement.

Though public opinion polls show Barak lagging behind any Likud candidate if elections were held today, the majority of the public is still said to favor a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Likud chairman Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition, vowed to defeat Barak in a general election to prevent further concessions to the Palestinian Authority.

However, Sharon also offered Wednesday to continue discussions with Barak on the possibility of a national unity government. “The nation needs unity in order to reach peace,” Sharon told Israel’s Army Radio.

President Moshe Katsav joined the appeals to hold elections as soon as possible, saying a drawn-out campaign could lead to extremism and would not serve the national interest.

Katsav also said Wednesday that in the run-up to the election, the government should not make any dramatic decisions without the support of the Knesset.

The Knesset plans to vote next week on opposition initiatives to bar a prime minister who lacks a legislative majority from signing an agreement with the Palestinians.

It is not yet clear who will be the candidates in the election.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Barak handily defeated in the 1999 race, is believed to be considering a political comeback, either as the leader of Likud or of a new, conservative party.

The leaders of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the National Religious Party said this week they would probably back Netanyahu if he decides to run again.

Netanyahu is currently in the United States and is expected back in Israel next week.

Barak faces potential challengers within his Labor Party as well.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg have been named as possible contenders.

But Labor secretary Ra’anan Cohen, who long has had an acrimonious relationship with Barak before drawing closer to him in recent days, said he did not expect Barak to be challenged.

Cabinet member Dalia Itzik acknowledged that Barak has made mistakes when dealing with party colleagues, but that even his critics within Labor agree that “in the big things, he functioned properly.”

On the diplomatic front, Barak is assessing whether a resumption of peace negotiations is possible with the Palestinian Authority if violence eases in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, contradicting earlier army assessments, an Israel Defense Force official told a briefing Wednesday that the number of shooting incidents against Israeli troops and civilians increased this week.

Noting that Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants freed by the Palestinian Authority still remain at large, the official said any lull in violence may only be temporary.

During the past week, Israeli and Palestinian security officials have met in an attempt to reduce the violence.

At the same time, Israel has begun implementing confidence-building measures linked to the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on Monday.

On Wednesday, Israel transferred nearly $9 million in funds that it had previously withheld from the Palestinian Authority to pressure the Palestinians to quell the ongoing violence.

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