Jerusalem, Nov. 5 (Reuters): Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced today an early election for February after failing to form a new Right-wing coalition government.
He said his desire to preserve Israel’s “special relationship” with the White House was a main consideration in deciding not to press ahead with efforts to woo ultranationalist parties into his minority government.
“I will dissolve the Knesset and call general elections within 90 days,” he told a news conference. “The date is one of the first days of February.”
Flying high in opinion polls, Sharon said he refused to bow to “political extortion” while courting partners for the narrow coalition he had hoped to form after the Centre-Left Labour Party bolted the 20-month-old “unity government” last week.
Labour abandoned its partnership with Sharon in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements on occupied lands where Palestinians want to establish a state. Sharon said he had made “the responsible choice” and “opted for the lesser of two evils” by deciding to go to new elections.
Palestinians called on Israelis to choose a government committed to a peace process that has been shattered by violence during a two-year-old Palestinian uprising and is likely to be slowed further as an election campaign gains speed.
Sharon tried to enlist the far-Right National Union-Yisrael Beitenu party into the minority government, which would have restored the parliamentary majority he lost when Labour left. But National Union-Yisrael Beitenu sought a change in government guidelines that have included accepting US President George W. Bush’s vision of Palestinian statehood.
“I will not stray from the responsible policy of the government, change its guidelines or damage the deep strategic agreements with the United States or the special relationship my government... has achieved with the White House,” Sharon said.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, an adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, said Sharon’s government had failed in its promise to provide security to Israelis.
“What is needed now is an Israeli government committed to peace because this is the only path to security and stability,” Abu Rdainah said.
Israel last held a general election in 1999 and a new one was due by law by October 2003.
Under a system that has since been scrapped, Sharon was elected in a separate prime ministerial ballot in February 2000, pledging to end the Palestinian uprising, now in its third year.
Sharon formally set the election process in motion by holding surprise talks early today with Israeli President Moshe Katzav and winning his approval for an early ballot.
Katzav issued a written decree dissolving parliament and Sharon’s administration became a caretaker government that no member can quit until after election day. Legislators retain their seats in the transition parliament, which can be called into session by the Cabinet, with a vote on Israel’s contentious 2003 state budget pending.
Political commentators have forecast that Sharon’s Likud Party would do well in a general election, buoyed by a shift to the Right in Israel in response to Palestinian suicide bombings.