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Israeli Elections to be Held Months Ahead of Schedule - 2002-11-05


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called early elections, a week after the collapse of his broad-based coalition government.

After a week of political turmoil, Mr. Sharon called a news conference to announce that Israelis will go to the polls early next year, nine months ahead of schedule.

He said that early elections were the least bad option, following the withdrawal last week of the Labor Party from his coalition government.

Mr. Sharon had been wooing ultra-nationalist parties since the Labor ministers pulled out in a dispute over the funding of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But he was not able to reach agreement to form a new coalition.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he accepted that Mr. Sharon could no longer maintain a stable government, and there was no alternative, but to hold early elections. Mr. Sharon will remain in office as a caretaker, until the election.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rival to Mr. Sharon for the leadership of the Likud Party, has agreed to serve as foreign minister in Mr. Sharon's government, until the polls are held.

The speaker of the Israeli parliament, Avraham Burg, said the elections should be held on February 4, but this may not be possible, because it is the date of a memorial for 73 soldiers who died in a helicopter crash in Lebanon in 1997.

A committee of the parliament is expected to meet Wednesday to look at alternative dates. Some reports indicate the election date could be January 28.

Before Israel goes to the polls, there will be contests for the leadership of the two main parties Likud and Labor.

The front-runner in the Labor camp is considered to be Amram Mitzna, the Mayor of Haifa. He will likely face the current party leader, former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and perhaps other candidates.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu will face each other in what is expected to be a bitter fight for the Likud leadership. Analysts say both party leadership races are at this point too close to call

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