A number of Likud MKs are looking to replace Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a new national leader at the last minute and delay elections for a year.
To do so, they must collect 61 signatures from fellow MKs in favor of the new leader and present them to President Moshe Katsav by December 8. The strategy for delaying the elections is based on the assumption that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new party would lose popularity in the interim.
It's widely assumed that MK Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the leading candidates for Likud leadership, is behind the initiative, although a source close to him denied it. The source said he didn't believe it was possible to gather the necessary names.
Until two weeks ago, MK Uzi Landau was similarly looking at such an initiative and had gathered 56 names, said a spokesman. Landau dropped the quest because he was unable to sway Shinui to join the list, a move that would have taken him beyond the required 61.
December 8 is the date on which it is expected that the president will approve the dispersal of the Knesset and authorize the start of the election period.
A spokesperson for Shinui said the party had been approached by Likud MKs with a deal by which its members would sign on to the list in exchange for a promise that the others on the list would support Shinui's bid for a law approving civil marriage.
The spokesman said Shinui MKs were weighing the matter but were concerned whether the MKs in question would be able to make good on their word.
A Labor spokesman said the party did not support such a move, because Labor felt rapid elections were now in the country's best interest. The regularly scheduled elections would have been held in November 2006.
A Shas spokesman said it would only consider signing on to such a list, once it saw 50 other names in support. But a spokesman for Landau said that once Shinui was on board, Shas was no longer needed.
MK Michael Ratzon said he was among those who were holding conversations with other legislators regarding the possibility of delaying the elections, but he did not elaborate on who was behind the initiative or what name would head the list.
MK Yuval Steinitz said he would approve such a move as early elections only benefit Sharon, "therefore it is legitimate to postpone them."
"If Sharon is not the prime minister, his new party would collapse," he added. Steinitz said he believed that such a list of signatures could reach as high as 70 or more. "I think most parties have a clear interest in not doing what is convenient for Sharon."
Even as Likud MKs are working to delay the election, Hisdai Eliezer, who heads Alfei Menashe's regional council is looking to advance the date of the Likud leadership primaries, now set for December 19. The Likud needs a leader as quickly as possible and can't afford to wait for another few weeks.
He has asked MK Tzahi Hanegbi, who heads the Likud Central Committee to consider changing the date, which was set by all six candidates.
Netanyahu and Landau both said they would be happy to see it moved up.
In a separate matter, former Labor party chairman Shimon Peres is set to hold a joint press conference Sunday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Peres, who resigned last week after a lifetime with Labor, is expected to speak of his support for Sharon. Peres, however, is not joining Sharon's Kadima party.
Speaking to The BBC on Friday, Peres said, "the Labor Party is not compatible with Israel's current diplomatic situation, which demands that the peace process be carried forward as a first priority.
"I hope that Labor will join the coalition with Sharon as prime minister," added Peres.
On Friday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is vying for Likud party leadership, attacked Sharon for making a partnership with Peres, given that Peres is one of the architects of the Oslo Accords.
While Mofaz did not name Peres specifically, he said that Sharon's alignment with members of the Left who supported Oslo and call for a return to the 1967 borders, means that he is joining the camp of people whose beliefs are "endangering the state's security."
Labor MK Binyamin Eliezer turned down a request by Sharon to join Kadima.
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