Early elections again in Israel?

By Aaron Klein

Israel’s octogenarian Labor leader Shimon Peres has called for early elections, effectively scrapping talks to enter the government after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party barred him from any negotiations with Labor in a vote yesterday, but sources say Sharon plans to pursue coalition talks anyway.

Sharon had vowed earlier in the day to press ahead with an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip despite the humiliating rebuff from his own party over his pursuit of an alliance with Labor to forge a parliamentary majority for his plan.

Peres, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords and an outspoken proponent of ceding land for “peace” with Palestinians, suggested yesterday Sharon had been “too weakened by the revolt of Likud rightists” to pursue talks with the main opposition.

“The opinion of the Labor Party today is to call for new elections and allow the people to decide,” Peres, a veteran former prime minister and foreign minister, told journalists.

He said elections, which do not have to be held until 2006, should take place “as soon as possible, the minute there is a majority in the Knesset,” Israel’s parliament.

Peres would have to present a motion to dissolve parliament to the 120-member Knesset, which is in recess until October. Some Labor lawmakers earlier were doubtful they could win a parliamentary no-confidence vote to enable fresh elections.

In a non-binding Likud Party vote yesterday, Sharon lost by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent a proposal ruling out negotiations with Labor.

But Sharon intends to instruct the Likud’s coalition negotiating team to restart talks with the Labor Party in spite of a Likud vote against such action, a source said.

“When he comes back from his vacation, you will see Sharon proceed with full force toward bringing about unilateral disengagement and a national unity government,” a Sharon associate said.

“He will respect the results of the convention, but he will do what is right for Israel. The five-vote margin that voted down Sharon’s proposal will not decide the future of the state.”