News analysis: Why Peres wants to push Israel into early elections

JERUSALEM — A cartoon by Ze'ev in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz early this week showed a row of runners standing at the starting line of a race waiting for the referee to fire the starting shot.

The referee, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was also one of the runners — and he was deliberating whether he should give the signal for early elections.

By the time the newspaper hit the streets, however, Peres' deliberations appeared to be over.

Over the weekend, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Peres apparently fired the opening shot and the race began.

According to widespread media reports, he has decided to move up the date for Israel's national elections, originally scheduled for Oct. 29, to May.

Although Peres has not yet publicly declared a new date for elections, he has instructed his associates to work out a date with the opposition.

While he has stated that only internal Israeli political considerations would dictate the choice of an election date, it has become apparent that the slow pace of negotiations with Syria was a major contributing factor in his decision.

Had he felt assured that he could shake hands with Syrian President Hafez Assad and sign a peace agreement before the regularly scheduled elections, he would have waited with good reason.

The present government has managed to carry out its dramatic policies — the peace accords with the Palestinians, drastic reduction of inflation and remarkable economic growth — despite a very narrow majority in the Knesset.

In the best of all possible worlds, Peres would like to have his cake and eat it too: He'd prefer to proceed with the Syrian peace process as if there were no elections, and to run internal politics as if there were no negotiations with Syria.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher tried to put the best spin on events as he arrived in Israel for another round of Jerusalem-Damascus shuttle diplomacy Monday.

"I believe we can continue peace negotiations under any scenario here," Christopher said.

But political realities have a way of encroaching on the best of dreams.

Over the weekend, Peres still enjoyed a comfortable margin of popularity, leading Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu by 19 percentage points in a poll conducted by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

But all that could change between now and the regularly scheduled elections in October.

One terrorist attack could alter the mood of the Israeli voting public. The economic situation is stable for now but there are widespread concerns inflation will once again burst upon the scene.

If Peres waits until October, he could lose public support and along with it the ability to proceed with the peace process.

The possibility of early elections has already elicited criticism from Netanyahu that Peres is taking political advantage of the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Criticism of Peres' plans for early elections has also come from a member of his own Cabinet, Shulamit Aloni of the left-wing Meretz Party.

"Only if the government can no longer rule should it call for early elections," she said. "But this is not the case."

However, Minister Yossi Beilin of the Labor Party said the elections will be held early. "The dynamics for early elections are already there and I don't think anyone can stop it," he noted.

Almost despite itself, the Likud opposition has been drawn into the election process.

It has not yet decided on its official attitude toward the Palestinian self-rule government and it is lagging in the polls behind Labor. But Likud has nonetheless accepted the challenge.

"We shall welcome early elections," Netanyahu said, "to shorten the days of this government, which does so much damage every additional day in power."

Labor Party officials have been suspicious of Likud's support for early elections. Their concern focuses on the possibility that Likud, for all its public enthusiasm, could attempt to block early elections when it comes up for parliamentary approval.

Still, Likud appeared to be gearing up its right flank this week when it agreed to form a joint list with the right-wing Tsomet Party.

One result of that agreement was that Tsomet leader Rafael Eitan, by agreeing to run in a No. 2 position on the list, has removed himself from the candidacy for prime minister.

On the surface, at least, most Knesset factions spoke this week in favor of early elections.

Along with Tsomet, former Likud member David Levy and his new party welcomed early elections. So did the National Religious Party and the two Knesset members who have formed the Third Way Party.

Thus, a parliamentary majority supporting early elections seemed to be secured.

True, there was some confusion among the ultra-religious parties, with some favoring early elections, others opposing them.

Aryeh Deri of the Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party spoke out against early elections, saying they would create a forced interruption of studies, since yeshiva students are still busy with their studies in May.

Labor's main coalition partner, Meretz, showed little enthusiasm for early elections. Opinion polls show it stands to lose more than to gain in early elections.

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of Meretz said, "Labor should say the truth. It is legitimate for a government to push elections early because of an expected electoral advantage." All that remains is the public announcement from Peres, which was expected to come this week, and aides said early elections would likely be May 28.

It will mark the first time in Israeli history that, along with the Knesset vote, Israelis will cast a direct ballot for the premiership.

Meanwhile, the Israel-Syria negotiations will likely go into the deep freeze — at least until the elections in Israel are over, possibly even until after U.S. presidential elections in November.

Christopher said, however, that the United States will push ahead with the peace talks no matter what happened with Israel's elections.

"Our role is to try to facilitate the negotiations and to press forward, and we shall do so under whatever decision is made by the Israeli government," he said.

After Christopher's mission, which included a meeting with Yasser Arafat in which Christopher urged Arafat to amend the Palestinian covenant calling for Israel's destruction, Israeli and Syrian negotiators are expected to start a third round of talks at the Wye Plantation in Maryland Feb. 26.

For now, then, the talks remain on schedule despite Peres all but admitting he is steering toward early elections. That, he indicated, would assist the peace process.

"What we need is a mandate to negotiate with the Syrians," Peres said.