(photo credit: AP [file])
President Shimon Peres began the countdown to new elections in his address at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on Monday afternoon, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that he would remain caretaker premier until the formation of a new government early next year.
After consulting with the various factions in the Knesset, Peres said he had concluded that no one had the support to form a government and elections were inevitable. The Knesset has three weeks to dissolve itself, and elections will take place three months later.
"This is the hour in which the Israeli parliament and the political establishment are obligated to do some deep soul-searching," Peres said. "In the coming days, Israel will enter an election period.... The upcoming elections are an opportunity to raise the foundation of Israel and to alleviate its various weaknesses."
Several MKs in Kadima had pressed Olmert to step down, to allow the new Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had failed to put together a new coalition, to prove her leadership capabilities before the elections.
"Two months ago, I informed the Israeli public of my intention to resign following the establishment of a new government," Olmert told the Knesset in a speech that followed Peres. "It was my hope and expectation that such government would be formed by the winner of the Kadima primary elections, before general elections. Since the die has been cast and it appears that the political system is heading towards elections, I will remain prime minister until the formation of a new government after the elections."
Also on Monday, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu unofficially launched his campaign, pledging not to give up any part of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak challenged Livni and Netanyahu to an American-style debate.
An aide to Barak told The Jerusalem Post that debates should be held on politics, economics, social affairs and the rule of law.
Knesset Speaker Itzik and faction heads are scheduled to meet on Tuesday to decide whether to cut short the winter session, perhaps ending it as early as next week.
From the moment elections are declared, 111 days are counted until Election Day unless the Knesset sets a new date for concluding its current session. On Monday, Kadima faction head MK Yoel Hasson presented a bill to shorten the period of 21 days during which 61 MKs can present a candidate they are all agreed on to try to form a government.
At this time, it is most likely the elections will be held on February 10, but two more dates are possible: February 3 or January 27, Knesset sources said.
Appealing for national unity to counter international and internal crises, Peres used the opening of the winter session on Monday afternoon to urge the parties to work together.
"This Knesset session is opened against a background of internal and external turmoil which has aroused great concern in the heart of every citizen," Peres said. "The difficult process that ultimately ended the days of this government raises question marks which trouble all of the people of Israel. The confidence in the conduct of the governing agencies has been weakened, and moreover, the public trust in their leaders has been damaged. This unpleasant truth must not be hidden or neglected."
Olmert, who announced his resignation in September in the wake of several police corruption investigations, said the country had too many pressing security needs for him to leave office immediately.
"The security threats against the citizens of Israel do not wait for the political processes. The fear of terrorism cannot be postponed just because some of us are engaged in an election campaign. Hamas's continued military buildup and the smuggling of weapons in the North and South do not stop just because we're in the middle of an election campaign," Olmert said. "Iranian leaders do not sit still but continue to threaten and prepare destructive weapons - even during an election period in Israel. To all those I highly recommend not to try our patience or put our ability to the test."
"Over the past month, negotiations were conducted on the formation of a government. I value and appreciate the worthy efforts made by acting prime minister Tzipi Livni to form a government, and I regret the circumstances which led to the failure of the negotiations," Olmert said.
Olmert pledged to do all he could to resolve the financial dispute that endangered the opening of universities next week. He said the global economic crisis might be on its way to the shores of Israel, and the Israeli market must be prepared, "even if the government is a transitional one and the Knesset is heading towards elections. This is what the public expects, and it is exactly what we, as elected public officials, are committed to doing."
"We will not tolerate recklessness and will continue to exercise strict fiscal discipline. I expect all members of this House to enlist and unite for the sake of this shared interest," he said.
In his address, Netanyahu said that if elected, Israel would keep "defensible borders," and he pledged to retain the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu also said Israel would have to keep large swaths of the West Bank as part of any agreement with the Palestinians, and that all of Jerusalem will remain in Israel's hands.
"We will not negotiate over Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years. I didn't do it in the past and I won't do it in the future," Netanyahu declared.
Itzik called on Knesset members not to be dragged into "wild tongue-lashing" and inciting against each other but above all she stressed and urged them not to take advantage of the upcoming period of uncertainty to pass "irresponsible" bills.
"We shall not tie the hands of the next Knesset and government with legislation initiatives that may award us with applause for a short moment," she said.
Itzik told The Jerusalem Post she would work to prevent the passage of private bills by prohibiting the practice during the short period the winter session would sit.
Peres met on Monday morning with the representatives of the parties that told him unanimously they wanted general elections. All of them said they wanted elections and excluding the Gil Pensioners Party, the preference was for elections as soon as possible.
Among the different claims was United Torah Judaism's request not to hold the elections on Tu Bishvat and that of the Arab MKs, who thought the winter was not a good time for elections since the rain might deter people.
AP contributed to this report.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>