By GREER FAY CASHMAN
President Moshe Katsav worked hard to orchestrate an agreement on the March 28 election date that he announced yesterday.
He spent a long day in meetings with Labor chairman Amir Peretz, Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Attorney General Menahem Mazuz, Likud MK Gideon Saar, Shas leader Eli Yishai and Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon.
This was the most acceptable date with everyone to whom he had spoken said Katsav, and it was also acceptable to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Katsav did not know till early Monday morning that his whole day was going to be turned around. A staffer from the Prime Minister's Office had woken Beit Hanassi Director-General Moshe Goral at 2 a.m. to tell him that Sharon wanted a 9 a.m. meeting in order to get the president's agreement to dissolve the Knesset.
Katsav cleared his schedule on Monday, cancelling all appointments. After meeting Sharon at 9 a.m., Katsav kept up a steady stream of meetings throughout the day and into the night discussing the election date and issues related to the dissolution of the Knesset.
"When he asked for a similar meeting three years ago," recalled Katsav "he came at 7 a.m." On that previous occasion, Katsav related, Sharon had also consulted with him. "This time he came to tell me that he didn't have a majority in the Knesset and that the government could not function under such circumstances."
Three hours later, Katsav received a briefly worded letter from Sharon confirming what he had said in their conversation.
Sharon's request was fraught with complexities.
If Katsav acceded to it immediately, it would set in motion a 21-day period in which the Knesset would have to come up with another suitable candidate for prime minister. After that there would be an additional 90-day period in which to call elections, but according to law, the day would have to be a Tuesday.
This would have made election day the 7th of Adar, which is the memorial day for unknown soldiers.
If he agrees to the request on Tuesday, the Knesset has the power to defer the elections by another 10 days, but the Tuesday within that time-line would be Purim - which, though it is the festival of lots, is inappropriate for ballots.
Thus the only suitable date was March 28, which would indicate that Katsav will sign the necessary document on Wednesday.
Katsav remained enigmatic about the signing date, but repeated the arithmetic several times so that reporters could work it out for themselves.
Although May was proposed as another possibility, Katsav is determined that the elections will take place sooner rather than later.
He also made it clear that he would not tolerate any political shenanigans during the 21-day period. What he meant by that, he said, was that the Knesset could, on the 20th day, come up with an unlikely candidate for prime minister. The candidate would not be able to form a government and the Knesset would then earn another 28 days - followed by 14 days, followed by 90 days - before the actual election date.
The period prior to the elections, he clarified, would be an interim period, not a transition period.
The State was in a chaotic situation due to the resignation of so many ministers, and simply could not function properly with such a minuscule government, said Katsav. For this reason he had asked Peretz not to stand in the way of short-term ministerial appointments. Peretz, against the wishes of his faction, had agreed to waive any objections to new ministers.
Katsav was also concerned about tensions on the northern borders which is another reason that he wants to enlarge and stabilize the government as soon as possible.
Once he agreed to dissolve the Knesset, he said, the prime minister would not need the Knesset's approval to appoint ministers and would be free to appoint whomever he sees fit for a term of not more than 120 days.
As a result of the election crisis, Katsav has once again postponed a scheduled State visit to Ghana and Nigeria. Katsav's political adviser Avi Granot was to have left for Africa this week to make final arrangements for the visit. "The crisis caught us by surprise," he admitted. Katsav was supposed to go to Africa on December 11. No new date will be set until the election issue is fully resolved.