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Tuesday, December 29, 1998 Published at 14:14 GMT


World: Middle East

Israel faces six months election battle

Netanyahu's campaign starts at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Israelis face the prospect of nearly six months of political campaigning between now and 17 May, the date provisionally set for the general elections.

One opposition MP says the uncertainty caused is solely due to "base political considerations" by the larger parties.

Middle East
The main parties agreed the date on Monday, and it was approved by the Israeli parliament's law committee on Tuesday.

The date now has to be confirmed in a vote in the Knesset, which is expected to take place on Monday.

If, as many expect, neither Binyamin Netanyahu - leader of the Likud party - nor his challengers for the prime minister's job wins 50% of the vote, the parties agreed a second round run-off would take place on 1 June between the top two candidates.


[ image: Begin: One of Netanyahu's opponents for the top job]
Begin: One of Netanyahu's opponents for the top job
Currently Mr Netanyahu faces a number of challengers, including Labour party leader Ehud Barak, Likud lawmaker Ze'ev Binyamin Begin, Likud hawk Uzi Landau, former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Likud finance minister Dan Meridor.

However, Israel's hawkish Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert have both announced they will not seek the party's nomination for prime minister.

Mr Sharon, a former General, urged his Likud Party colleagues to back Mr Netanyahu and "close ranks around the man who was elected to head the movement because there is simply no other choice in a democracy".

The bill to hold early elections goes before the Israeli parliament two more times next Monday before passing into law. The measure was approved in a first reading by an overwhelming majority in the body.

Partisan motives

An MP from the left-wing Meretz party accused the two big parties of threatening the country's security for partisan motives.

"An election campaign that lasts nearly six months is going to provoke a delay in implementation of the peace process, create a period of uncertainty for the economy and imperil the country's security solely for base political considerations," said Amnon Rubinstein.


[ image:  ]
Mr Netanyahu froze implementation of the Wye River land-for-security agreement with the Palestinians earlier this month, cancelling a second West Bank troop withdrawal required by the US-brokered accord.

He set down a list of five conditions he said the Palestinians must meet before he would authorise any further Israeli withdrawals.

US officials have played down concerns that prolonged political uncertainty in Israel will lead to a breakdown in the peace process.

A White House spokesman said any delay in carrying out the Wye agreement would be "unfortunate", adding that "the elections in Israel are an internal matter".



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