JERUSALEM, Nov. 5 (JTA) — With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to call early elections, Israel’s political parties entered a race against the clock to organize for a lightning campaign. Elections are due to be held within 90 days — Jan. 28 was mentioned as a possible date — leaving parties less than three months to organize, hold internal elections to choose their leaders and submit their Knesset lists within 45 days of the national election. Labor Party leadership primaries already are scheduled for Nov. 19. Sharon’s Likud Party is expected to hold its own vote shortly thereafter. Unlike the last three national elections, voting for the 16th Knesset will be for political parties only, without a separate ballot for prime minister. After the election, President Moshe Katsav will give one Knesset member — usually the leader of the party winning the most seats — the chance to form a government. Following Sharon’s election in 2001, the Knesset voted to change the system of direct elections for prime minister, restoring the one-vote parliamentary system that had operated until 1996. Advocates hoped the reform would lead to more stability, as the direct election system had strengthened the political influence of smaller, special-interest parties at the expense of the larger parties. Indeed, none of the three prime ministers elected under the direct election system — Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Sharon — managed to serve a full term. Both Likud and Labor hope their Knesset representation will be significantly boosted by the return to the old system. Both parties lost seats when citizens could cast separate votes for prime minister and Knesset representation. Following Sharon’s declaration of early elections, Netanyahu announced he would agree to serve as foreign minister in the outgoing government. Netanyahu, who plans to challenge Sharon in the Likud leadership primaries, had conditioned his acceptance on the holding of early elections. Sharon had rejected the demand earlier this week. At his news conference Tuesday, however, he said his offer to Netanyahu still stood, provided Netanyahu didn’t present any new conditions. Netanyahu was to be sworn in as foreign minister on Wednesday, formally marking his political comeback three and a half years after he was tossed out of the prime minister’s office in a landslide in May 1999 elections. Netanyahu appealed to Sharon to work together and engage in a fair campaign for party leadership, declaring that “together we will move toward a big victory for the Likud and for the country.” The two were due to meet Wednesday to seek a date for Likud primaries. Sharon reportedly favors holding the primaries as soon as possible, while Netanyahu wants at least a month to organize and get his message out, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported. According to the paper, a run-off in the Likud is not out of the question, as far-right activist Moshe Feiglin, who previously headed the Zo Artzeinu movement, also may throw his hat into the ring. Meanwhile, at a conference at Labor Party headquarters, party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer declared that if Labor wins, it will alter national priorities so that settlements do not receive special benefits at the expense of other sectors. Responding to Sharon’s accusation that Labor’s “political caprice” was to blame for the fall of the national unity government last week, Ben-Eliezer retorted that Sharon alone bore responsibility for the collapse. “Last week’s dispute was about preference for development towns,” and for “pensioners, students and young people and settlements,” Ben-Eliezer said. He also said that Sharon had no accomplishments after 20 months in power — although, until last week, Ben-Eliezer was his right-hand man during that entire period. Ben-Eliezer is being challenged for Labor Party leadership by two more dovish candidates, Knesset member Haim Ramon and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna. Polls show him trailing both challengers. The charged campaign atmosphere was not limited to the two largest parties. National Religious Party leader Efraim Eitam said on Israel Radio that he hoped to “unite the religious Zionists into a body of some 10 mandates, and to make a stand as a responsible right-wing camp.” Eitam said he expected to open a dialogue with the far-right National Union-Israel Our Home faction ahead of the elections. In a procedural twist in the political developments, it appears that new Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who stepped down in July as the army’s chief of staff, will not be able to run for Knesset. The elections are expected to be held before the end of the “cooling-off period” former senior army officers must spend before they can enter politics. However, observers said there were no obstacles to Mofaz being named to a Cabinet post as a political appointee. On Tuesday, Katsav called on political parties to engage in a cultivated and cost-efficient campaign. Finance Minister Silvan Shalom echoed this sentiment, saying he was working on a proposal to cut by 50 percent the election budget allocated for political parties. “At this time, when we are truly in a difficult economic situation, I do not think political parties, on the eve of an election, can say ‘no’ to such a proposal,” he said. “There are ways to make the campaign shorter and more cost-efficient.” Based on the election rolls from August, some 4.7 million Israelis are eligible to vote.
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