Israeli leader agrees to hold early elections

November 18, 2005|By JOEL GREENBERG | JOEL GREENBERG,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to hold early elections in Israel in late February or March at a meeting yesterday with Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Labor Party.

Early elections became likely after Peretz defeated veteran Labor leader Shimon Peres in an upset victory in party primaries last week. Peretz, a dovish longtime union leader, said he would take Labor out of Sharon's governing coalition and force an election before it is due in November 2006.

After meeting Sharon in Tel Aviv, Peretz said he would accept any date Sharon chose in the agreed time frame.

"I'm letting him choose a date in that period between the end of February and the end of March, and whatever date he chooses is acceptable to me. The earlier the better," Peretz said.

Sharon said in an interview published yesterday in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that Peretz's push to take Labor out of the government convinced him that early elections were inevitable.

"The moment it became clear to me that the existing political structure was breaking up, I reached the conclusion that the best thing for the country is to have elections as quickly as possible," Sharon said. "If possible we shall go to the people in February."

Peretz said he hoped a final date for elections would be announced by Monday.

Sharon has not indicated whether he will remain at the head of his Likud Party, where he has faced stiff opposition from hard-line members opposed to the recent Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, or break away and run at the head of a new centrist party.

Peretz's victory has had the effect of softening opposition to Sharon in Likud, pushing the party to close ranks against the challenge posed by the new Labor leader.

Peretz, who is opposed to the Sharon government's free-market policies, is planning to campaign for a restoration of social welfare programs, reaching out to disadvantaged Israelis in low-income towns and neighborhoods, a traditional reservoir of Likud support.

Recent opinion polls show that Peretz's leadership would boost voter support for Labor, but not necessarily enough to unseat Sharon.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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