Israel's president on Wednesday set March 28 as the date for early elections. Israel's parliament is expected to vote shortly to approve the decision. Polls indicate that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to call early elections and leave the Likud Party enjoys wide public support.
Israel's president, Moshe Katsav, says he signed an order dissolving parliament and calling new elections after extensive talks with lawmakers indicated that no new governing coalition could be formed.
For procedural reasons the order dissolving the current government takes effect on December 8. Ariel Sharon will stay on as prime minister until elections and can make any cabinet changes he wants to until Israelis vote on March 28.
Polls show Mr. Sharon's move to create a centrist party to replace his Likud-dominated coalition has wide public support. Edward Kaufman is the former head of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University. He now teaches at the University of Maryland. Speaking from his home in Jerusalem, Mr. Kaufman says Mr. Sharon's move to the center has credibility with a majority of voters.
"What I can recall is that centrist parties are popular when things are polarized," he said. "Sharon is now opting for a centrist position between Labor and the more hard-line Likud people and that makes him very popular. But he is also seen by the Israeli people to be credible."
Edward Kaufman says a majority of the Israeli public trusts Ariel Sharon on security issues and is also willing to trust him on any deal with Palestinians involving drawing Israel's permanent border with the Palestinians, something Mr. Sharon says he intends to do if he wins re-election to a third term.
One of Mr. Sharon's closest advisers, Eyal Arad, says if Mr. Sharon is re-elected he will move away from the concept of "territory for peace" which has been the linchpin of Israel's negotiating strategy with Palestinians for years, and which the 1993 Oslo accords are based on. Instead, Mr. Arad says Israel will move to an alternate strategy of "security for independence." Mr. Sharon's adviser says what Palestinians really want is independence, and Israel is willing to give it to them, in exchange for security.
Edward Kaufman says Ariel Sharon and his advisers are moving toward an eventual unilateral settlement.
"My sense is that Sharon does not believe that Palestinians are ready to make peace on the territorial terms that he is willing to offer," he added. "Therefore, he is not keen to negotiate with the Palestinians, but rather set up a unilateral compact that will be hard to change."
Mr. Kaufman says Mr. Sharon and his advisers believe that over time, Israel's separation barrier with Palestinians could become their country's "permanent border." He says Ariel Sharon believes that just as Palestinians came to eventually accept Israel's 1967 borders, they will eventually accept the borders that Mr. Sharon intends to draw, if he wins a third term next March 28.