- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday dissolved parliament and scheduled elections in January, a move that effectively froze efforts to end the Palestinian uprising and added an element of uncertainty to U.S. plans to strike Iraq.
Mr. Sharon, 74, said he decided on the elections because he was unable to form a new coalition with far-right parties after the dovish Labor Party pulled out of the government last week.
Mr. Sharon first faces a stiff primary challenge for Likud party leadership from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has agreed to become foreign minister in the outgoing government.
Yesterday, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his long-standing view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be expelled and said the explusion could come during a U.S. strike against Iraq.
"I think the most appropriate time will be when Saddam Hussein is thrown out," Mr. Netanyahu told Israel TV. "I think that will be possible."
The prime minister told a press conference broadcast live from his Jerusalem office that he had tried to avoid early elections. Potential coalition partners such as the ultranationalist National Union-Israel Beitenu party, he said, made "unreasonable demands" in coalition talks, leaving the government short of a working majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
"Elections at this time are not what the country needs," said Mr. Sharon, who was elected in February 2001 by the largest margin in Israeli history.
However, "opposition to this government has led me to make a decision which is the most responsible and the least awful." Under Israeli law, he was obliged to call elections by October 2003.
The vote, nine months ahead of schedule, will mark Israel's third prime-ministerial election in less than four years. Polling must take place within about 90 days under Israeli law.
A Knesset spokesman said the elections could be held Jan. 28, though lawmakers will set the date later this week.
A day of back-to-back press conferences by political leaders began with an early-morning meeting in which Mr. Sharon formally announced new elections to President Moshe Katsav, whose largely ceremonial position included agreeing to the dissolution of parliament.
Mr. Sharon blamed Labor for the early elections, calling its decision to withdraw from the government an act of "political caprice." The prime minister had advertised his alliance with Labor as a key to Israel's strength amid geopolitical and economic instability.
It also helped him moderate his hawkish image in the eyes of the Israeli public.
Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has been accused of fomenting the split to distance himself from Mr. Sharon and improve his prospects among Labor faithful in a party leadership election Nov. 19. He faces a tough challenge from two dovish candidates: Amram Mitzna, mayor of the Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, and former trade unions chief Haim Ramon.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer, 66, who until last week served under Mr. Sharon as defense minister, signaled that Israel's economic troubles would be a central campaign theme.
Labor ministers resigned from the government last week after differences over the 2003 budget, which they said favored Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the cost of poor and needy Israelis.
"There will be no peace without dismantling the settlements," Mr. Ben-Eliezer said. "Our government won't take from the pensioners and give to the settlers. In our government, there won't be a half-million people in poverty."
However, the Palestinian uprising and Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are likely to be just as dominant in the election, analysts said.
The campaign is likely to place any progress in the peace process on hold.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called the elections an "internal" Israeli affair but expressed hope "that this time the Israeli people will choose a government that's capable of delivering peace."
Mr. Netanyahu, 53, held his own press conference to say he would accept Mr. Sharon's offer of the Foreign Ministry position, replacing Labor's Shimon Peres.
Mr. Netanyahu insisted on new elections when the job was offered to him last week.
"We need to elect a new Knesset," said Mr. Netanyahu, who led the government from 1996 to 1999. "I am convinced that the Likud will win a clear majority in the election."
Public opinion polls indicate that the winner of the Likud contest will become the front-runner in the general election.
Labor's chances depend on the party's ability to focus on the economy, which is expected to sputter through a third year of recession in 2003.
"Security and foreign policy work for the Likud," said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University.
"People don't forget who are responsible for the Oslo dream. The very existence of Israel is endangered, and people realize that today."
Meanwhile, four Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem pleaded guilty yesterday to direct involvement in four bombings that killed 35 persons, including five Americans at Hebrew University, the Associated Press reported quoting court officials.
Prosecutors said the four Palestinians belonged to a 15-member cell that had orchestrated attacks including a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe in March that killed 11 Israelis and the Hebrew University cafeteria bombing in July that killed nine persons.

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