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Israel sets early elections for Jan. 28

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT

TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Israeli President Moshe Katsav on Tuesday acceded to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's request to dissolve parliament and elections are scheduled for Jan. 28.

The president said Sharon described his futile efforts to expand the coalition after the Labor Party quit it last Wednesday.

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"The prime minister informed me he cannot form a stable alternative government," Katsav said.

Labor is the biggest party in the Knesset and its defection left Sharon with a minority government, holding 55 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament.

Sharon tried unsuccessfully to form a narrow-based right-wing coalition by bringing in the hawkish, nationalist Ihud Leumi-Israel Beitenu (National Union-Israel is Our Home). Ihud Leumi-Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman advocated early elections.

Recent polls indicate that Sharon's Likud Party would win the elections and could form a stable right-wing government, Liberman said.

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Liberman argued that if Sharon wants the Ihud Leumi-Israel Beitenu in his Cabinet, he should promise to oppose Palestinian statehood and promise that he would not seek a coalition with the dovish Labor Party.

Sharon flatly rejected the conditions, saying: "I will not yield to political extortion, by anyone.

"I shall not deviate from the government's responsible policy," Sharon said. "I shall not change the government's guidelines (that were drafted with Labor); I shall not harm the deep strategic understandings with the United States; I shall not harm the special relations reached ... with the White House!"

"What does he need me for?" Liberman asked. "To save him in no-confidence votes? Are we chewing gum that you use and then throw away?"

Liberman's faction abstained in a no-confidence motion Monday evening and voted with the coalition against two others tabled by Arab and leftist parties.

Since March 7, 2001, when he formed the broad-based national unity government, Sharon strove to maintain the image of a statesman who was unyielding to petty party squabbling.

However, at the head of a narrow-based coalition, he would be subject to small parties' demands.

The law provides they be on a Tuesday within 90 days, the latest of which is Jan. 28.

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Early elections mean that the parties must present lists of candidates by mid-December.

Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who Tuesday agreed to serve as foreign minister, will compete for the Likud Party's leadership.

The Likud is scheduling primaries among its 300,000 members and public opinion polls are unclear on who is ahead.

Labor Party elections are due Nov. 19. A public opinion poll prepared for Israel Radio indicates Haifa's Mayor Amram Mitzna leads the race with the support of 43 percent of Israeli "leftists," former Interior Minister Haim Ramon is second with 35 percent, and Labor's incumbent Chairman, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is at 6 percent.

Sharon was elected on a ticket promising peace and security, two promises he did not deliver, but he still maintained his popularity. Ben-Eliezer could find it difficult to attack Sharon's security policy since he had been defense minister until last week.

Tuesday, Labor seemed to be targeting the government's economic policies.

Labor quit the government when Sharon refused to cut the settlement budget to provide more funds for retired people and single parents. Sharon accused the party of harming national unity at a time of crisis because of "a political caprice."

Sharon alluded to Ben-Eliezer's fight over the budget that seemed really designed to boost his image as party leader and improve his chances at the polls.

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The Palestinian Authority reacted to the election news Tuesday by calling on Israelis to elect a government that would be able to bring peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.

"The Palestinian Authority would work with any government that the Israeli people would elect," said PA cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.

A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee said that the Israeli people "are standing now at a political crossroad."

Tayseer Khaled could not resist asserting: "Since the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, all the Israeli governments periods were short because they were not able to achieve peace and security for their people."

Mohamed Al Hindi, a senior Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said: "The collapse of the Israeli government is one of the Intifada achievements."

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