Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political opponents reported progress Wednesday in their efforts to build a “Center-Left mega-party” that could pose a serious challenge to him in the upcoming general election.

Netanyahu officially informed President Shimon Peres of his intention to advance the elections, in a meeting at the President’s Residence on Wednesday. Peres expressed hope that the elections would be clean.

Following consultations that Netanyahu held with coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, January 22 emerged as the apparent date for the elections. The date is acceptable to all the coalition parties and is just two days after the inauguration of the president of the United States.

Netanyahu must finalize the date before the Knesset convenes Monday for what is expected to be the first and last day of the parliament’s winter session. He could submit a bill for early elections as soon as Thursday, for his cabinet to approve in a vote on Sunday.

Holding the election so soon forces Netanyahu’s opponents to expedite their attempts to unite the Center- Left camp. Former justice minister Haim Ramon and Kadima faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik, who were among Kadima’s founders, have spearheaded the effort.

“Someone who has the ability to beat Netanyahu will lead our bloc,” Ramon said.

Ramon’s first preference is for former prime minister Ehud Olmert to lead the mega-party, which would bring together former Kadima head Tzipi Livni, current Kadima MKs and other well-known figures on the Left. He would also want Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s party to join.

Olmert told a stream of visitors to his office and home on Wednesday that he would decide whether to run within a week or two after receiving the results of in-depth surveys.

Livni, who met recently with Olmert, will not decide her political future until she returns from a lecture tour in the US in the middle of next week.

While popular former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi is legally prevented from running for Knesset, Olmert, who is close to Ashkenazi, would present him as his candidate for defense minister if he chooses to make a comeback.

If Olmert heads a Center- Left bloc he would be able to form a coalition with religious parties and with Yisrael Beytenu, whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, met with Olmert this week.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has said in closed conversations that he would not stand in the way of an Olmert comeback, but he is not expected to cooperate with an effort to reinstate Livni as head of the Center-Left bloc after he defeated her by a landslide in Kadima’s leadership race.

Itzik expressed confidence that Mofaz would be willing to make political compromises for the good of the country.

“I want to see Olmert as prime minister of Israel,” Itzik said. “At this point we need to put fanaticism and ego aside, and consider how to team up with each other and do our best for Israel.”

Ramon ruled out Mofaz as heading the bloc, saying he had removed himself from consideration when he joined Netanyahu’s coalition.

“As far as I’m concerned, Netanyahu will be replaced,” Ramon said. “We won’t make the same mistake that Mofaz made of joining a Netanyahu government and thinking we can change it from the inside. We have been there and we don’t care about being minor ministers.”

Olmert was acquitted in July of nearly all the serious corruption charges against him.

He was convicted of the minor crime of breach of public trust in the Investment Affair. In late September he received a suspended sentence of one year and a fine, meaning no prison time.

The Jerusalem District Court notably took a pass on ruling on the issue of moral turpitude, which could have prevented his political comeback.

Frequent media reports and the state prosecution’s own tone following Olmert’s verdict and sentencing have suggested that the prosecution would appeal. Although the spokesman for the Justice Ministry would say only that all options were being weighed, speculation has centered around the Talansky Affair as being ripe for appeal.

That aspect of the Olmert trial involved allegations that he illegally received large amounts of cash in envelopes from a wealthy American supporter.

Yonah Jeremy Bob and Michael Omer-Man contributed to this report.


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