Katsav: Election will be referendum

President says March vote will decide the future of the West Bank.

Israel's general election in March will amount to referendum on the future of the West Bank, and parties must present clear positions to the voters, President Moshe Katsav said in a radio interview broadcast Saturday. The remarks appeared aimed, in part, at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who quit the Likud this week and formed a new centrist party, Kadima. Polls indicate Sharon could be re-elected in the March 28 vote. However, he has refused to reveal Kadima's platform, except to say he remains committed to the road map peace plan. The future of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem has been at the center of all election campaigns since Israel captured the territories in the Six Day War, but voters have avoided a clear choice, Katsav said. "This time, it is the true referendum" on the future of these territories, Katsav said. "Arguments that have gone on for 38 years are now being decided, and parties have to present clear positions to the voters, not positions that are murky and opaque." Thursday, in a veiled attack on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Katsav complained about politicians who did not make "the right statements" detailing their true objectives, and pledged that he would use the four months until election day to press voters to demand that party leaders clearly disclose their intentions. "Asking for clear answers on [controversial] issues must become part of the national agenda," Katsav said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. This was not done in the past, he said, with the electorate subsequently accusing the prime minister of deviating from his stated platform. "The public didn't ask the right questions in the past, and the political leaders didn't make the right statements." With some 20 parties vying for Knesset seats in the next election, he said, the public needs to know exactly what its politicians stand for. The most striking example of the dangers of inadequate political transparency was the national brouhaha over the pullout from Gush Katif, he said, noting that some political pundits had forecast that the internal tension would lead to civil war. Fortunately they were wrong, but the experience provided a lesson for the future, he said. Katsav also addressed the recent power struggle over dissolving the government, in which the president found himself mediating between Sharon and the Knesset. He said he had consulted with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to ensure that his intervention was appropriate. His compromise proposals were designed to ensure that elections were held at the appropriate time and that, in the interim, the prime minister would be able to appoint the necessary ministers for a workable cabinet. Katsav told the Post that Sharon had assured him he would make only essential ministerial appointments. The president said he had to rely on the counsel of an independent figure, but that the attorney-general was not ideal. "When you have a political crisis," he said, "the president must have a legal adviser who is acceptable to everyone. I am consulting with the attorney-general because I consider him to be not just the attorney-general of the government but the attorney-general of the state." Still, he said, it would be better if there were a special counsel well versed in the law as it pertains to the president, the prime minister and the Knesset. The attorney-general, he noted, acts as an adviser to the prime minister and the government, and the Knesset has a legal adviser who is an expert on parliamentary law, but the regular legal adviser to the president deals primarily with requests for pardons and reductions of sentence and is not really equipped to handle problems such as those that confronted Katsav this past week. Though not obligated by law to consult with the Knesset Speaker or with the various political factions, Katsav believed that it was important to bridge gaps in his quest for the most effective solution to the problem. However, he said, his decision on Wednesday to sign the edict for the Knesset's dispersal and to select March 28, 2006, as the date for a general election did not get rid of all his headaches. He was concerned, he said, over Israel's ongoing political instability. "Government crises that force early elections are not good for the country. We've had too many government and parliamentary crises - five prime ministers in the last 10 years and 30 governments since the founding of the state." Under such circumstances, he observed, it was difficult to run a country properly. Katsav also said he saw something awry in a situation in which the prime minister, who was approved by the Knesset, called for the dissolution of the Knesset instead of the Knesset dismissing the prime minister. Back into his regular routine by Thursday, Katsav said that he was happy that all the consultations and clarifications had been concluded in a relatively short time. He had acted not out of political considerations, he stressed, but out of concern for the welfare of the nation.