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ISRAELI ELECTION IN LATE FEBRUARY OR MARCH

Prime Minister Sharon & Labor Party Leader Peretz Agree On Early Election In Late February Or March

Likud Rebel: 'Sharon Seeks Our Democratic Approval In Order To Govern As A Dictator'

Prime Minister Will Reportedly Decide over The Weekend Whether To Continue As Likud Leader Or Form a New Centrist Party

Ariel Sharon | Amir Peretz

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Labor leader Amir Peretz have met to agree on an early election in late February or March. By Monday, representatives of the two parties are to decide upon the exact date. Meanwhile in the Likud, the standoff between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his opponents has reached fever pitch. Sharon will return to his Negev ranch this weekend to decide whether to lead the Likud into the upcoming election or to jump ship and form a new party in light of the fierce opposition inside the Likud to his Palestinian policy such as the Gaza withdrawal. At an urgent session of the Likud Knesset caucus, Sharon and the MKs failed to reach a compromise.

'It's now official, Israeli voters will go to an early election sometime in late February or in March. The decision was taken at the first meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Labor party leader Amir Peretz. The Likud Knesset caucus whip Gideon Saar and his Labor counter-part Ephraim Sneh are to meet by Monday to work out the exact date. Today, Sharon told Peretz he was making a big mistake by pulling Labor out of the coalition and forcing an early ballot. The Prime Minister argued that the Israeli people do not support an early election; a general election was slated for the fall of 2006.

Likud Convention

The early election serves to deepen the leadership crisis in the Likud. 'Ariel Sharon is seeking our democratic approval to be a virtual dictator in violating Likud policy'. That's the reaction of a Likud 'rebel' Knesset Member after an emergency session of party's Knesset caucus failed to break the deadlock that could split Israel's ruling party. Sharon's opponents charge the Prime Minister still refuses to toe the line of the Likud's traditional 'Land of Israel' ideology after his recent Gaza withdrawal. The Likud crisis has even hardened in the face of the election threat posed by Amir Peretz, the newly elected and dynamic leader of the Labor party.

All the Likud members speak of the vital need for party unity but Sharon sources say the PM left the caucus meeting saying: 'No one should deceive himself that anyone's position has changed'. So the standoff continues - Sharon demands a free hand with the party divided over letting him implement any future withdrawals. The PM insists that HE knows what is best for the country and a majority of Israelis support him. This is his incentive and the Likud's nightmare, when it comes to quitting and founding a new right of center party. Some of Likud's 'big guns', such as Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Olmert, Zippy Livne and Meir Sheetrit who supported the Gaza withdrawal, might go with him. Sharon, 'Mr Security' in Israel would have a good chance of forming the next government with Labor. However, Amir Peretz has pledged not to enter a coalition with the Likud under any condition. This being the case, if Sharon remains as Likud leader and wins the election his only possible coalition would be with the far right. For better or worse, Sharon would be shackled by far right ideology.

If Sharon bolts the Likud, Bibi Netanyahu would be a shoe-in to succeed him. Netanyahu would steer the Likud to the far right the same way that Amir Peretz appears to be moving Labor farther to the left. In light of this, a right of center party lead by Sharon would be well placed to cash in on the new political map. Nonetheless, although Sharon sources say they have no idea what Sharon will do, most political pundits say Sharon will likely stay on as Likud leader.

In the Likud there is talk of a 'mechanism' to enable Sharon to carry on as a party leader of a unified party. However, no one seems to have the foggiest idea how to do it. One proposal was that Sharon would commit to submitting any future withdrawals to a national referendum. this notion has apparently petered out.

David Essing

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