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Sharon, Labor chief agree on early election

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new leader of the Labor party agreed at a meeting on Thursday to hold early elections in late February or March.
/ Source: Reuters

Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new leader of the leftist Labor party agreed at a meeting on Thursday to hold early elections in late February or March.

An early ballot has been on the cards since Amir Peretz won a surprise victory in a Labor leadership battle last week and vowed to leave Sharon’s ruling coalition to force an election before it is due in November 2006.

Peretz said after the short meeting in Tel Aviv that he would accept any date that Sharon chose in the period they had agreed. He hoped a date would be set by Monday, when parliament is due to start the motions of preparing for elections.

“He (Sharon) also insisted that we must go to early elections as early as possible,” Peretz told reporters.

Sharon’s officials said the prime minister had told Peretz it was irresponsible to call early elections, but that he would if there was no choice. Dates between February 26 and March 9 were proposed at the meeting that lasted barely 20 minutes.

Sharon was quoted by Israeli newspapers as saying that snap elections would prevent a political freeze.

“We must ensure that 2006 will not turn into a lost year with regard to the political process and to the effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinians,” Sharon told Israel’s biggest-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Israel’s political uncertainty has been an additional damper on hopes for renewed peacemaking with the Palestinians, strained by violence since the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip in September.

Political shock
Israel’s political system was given a jolt last week by the victory of Peretz, a union leader, in a party leadership contest with veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres, who joined Sharon’s alliance to assist the Gaza pullout.

Peretz, 53, shares the dovish views of 82-year-old Peres on making peace with the Palestinians and removing settlements from the occupied West bank.

But Peretz’s call to restore social welfare policies and reverse free-market reforms have struck a chord with Labor members, while rattling markets that only recently pulled out of recession.

Peretz said he hoped that setting an election date quickly would help calm the markets.

Opinion polls show that Peretz’s toppling of Peres has given Labor a big lift but not enough to unseat Sharon, a 77-year-old former general who twice swept to power pledging to crack down on a Palestinian revolt that erupted in 2000.

A Maariv newspaper poll showed that Likud would win 33 parliament seats in the ballot, down from their current 40. Labor would garner 27 seats -- up from the 22 they hold in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.

Peretz’s victory has also shaken Likud, which has been riven because of the Gaza pullout between supporters of Sharon and opponents of giving up settlements on land that Palestinians want for a state.

The crisis had prompted speculation that Sharon could bolt to form a more centrist party, possibly with Peres. But political analysts now think there is a bigger chance that Likud will rally round Sharon.

Polls show that Sharon would beat main rival Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of the Gaza pullout, in any leadership battle.