U.S. pressures Peres: Avoid early elections

JERUSALEM — Concerned that early elections in Israel could jeopardize chances for a peace accord with Syria, the United States is reportedly pressuring Jerusalem to stick with elections as scheduled.

But Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres apparently has told his Labor Party to prepare for the possibility of early elections, which could come as early as May 15.

A senior official connected to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who recently was on a shuttle mission to the region, had expressed concern that early elections in Israel would work against the momentum in the peace negotiations with Syria and could lead to their slowdown or freeze, the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported.

The senior U.S. diplomat, who met with American political figures visiting Israel, apparently asked them to convey a message to Peres against holding early elections, out of concern that elections in June could hurt the chances of reaching an agreement with Syria.

However, a source in the Prime Minister's Office said the United States had not put any kind of pressure on Israel against early elections and that American officials who recently met Peres had not raised the issue, either.

The American official was quoted as saying in Ha'aretz, however, that "the timetable we are currently facing in the Syrian track" is "based on the scheduled election date, the 29th of October."

The official also said, "Even with this date, we feel there is a need to accelerate the pace. While there has been a good beginning, it is still unclear if it is possible to conclude the talks" before the elections.

Nissim Zvilli, the secretary general of the Labor Party, reportedly said Thursday of last week that Peres has not yet decided whether to move up elections.

"Peres is committed to the process with Syria," Zvilli said. "As long as he sees this is going in a positive direction, we will not raise obstacles."

The possibility of early elections was discussed last week at a meeting of Labor Party ministers, Zvilli said.

The secretary general also said he proposed the May 15 vote if Peres moves up the balloting.

Peres has said in the past that he prefers to stick with the scheduled election day and opposes linking progress on the Syrian track to elections.

But Labor officials have said that privately, Peres is waiting to make a decision in mid-February, after another round of talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations and another shuttle mission by Christopher.

If the peace talks do not produce any progress by mid-May, early elections would still allow the Labor Party to capitalize on some of the support it drew after Yitzhak Rabin's murder.

Peres also instructed the party secretary last week to be prepared to move the Labor Party's internal primaries up to March 26. The primaries are now scheduled for April 17.

Peres said he wanted to avoid a drawn-out primary season.