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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sharon Calls February Elections

JERUSALEM -- In a surprise move, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday dissolved parliament and called elections for early February after he failed to rebuild his crumbling government.

Sharon's challenger in the upcoming primaries for leadership of the Likud party, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then announced he would serve as Sharon's foreign minister until the election.

The dramatic developments throw Israel into a turbulent election campaign at a time when the nation is facing severe problems -- the two-year-old Palestinian uprising, a deepening economic crisis and the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Israel in the event of a U.S. strike against Saddam Hussein.

Sharon said he made the decision reluctantly, but that he had no choice because the alternative -- succumbing to political blackmail by potential right-wing coalition partners -- would have been worse. "Elections are the last thing this country needs right now," Sharon told a hastily called news conference at his office.

He chided his former allies in the moderate Labor Party and a far-right party, the National Union-Israel Beitenu, blaming them for the end of his 20-month-old government. Israel has had five prime ministers in the past seven years.

February elections -- the emerging date was Feb. 4 -- would leave an unusually short time for campaigning, and both Sharon and the main opposition party, Labor, face leadership primaries this month.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, said he hopes Israelis will choose a different government. "What we are interested in right now is an Israeli government which is committed to the peace process, because the current government has failed in achieving peace and stability in the region," Abu Rdeneh said.

Sharon's broad coalition broke apart last week, after Labor quit in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the prime minister on Tuesday accused his former coalition partner of acting irresponsibly. Labor's departure was a "political caprice," Sharon said.

Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer returned the blame, saying: "The government fell because you [Sharon] have contempt for the poor." Ben-Eliezer had demanded that settlement funding be cut by $145 million, for the benefit of pensioners, students and poorer Israelis in provincial towns.

Ben-Eliezer and other Labor leaders have suggested that they will try to focus the coming campaign on the hobbled economy instead of the conflict with the Palestinians, an issue where Likud's harder line is currently more popular.

Sharon also had harsh words for the National Union, saying it had come with a long list of demands, including that he change basic government guidelines and that he reject outright a new U.S.-backed peace plan.

Polls suggest Sharon's Likud may grow somewhat stronger, but many observers are predicting the elections will be followed by yet another Likud-Labor coalition.

In the coming weeks, both Sharon's Likud and the Labor Party will choose candidates for prime minister.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that he had not changed his mind about challenging Sharon in a primary vote expected in the coming weeks, but at the same time would accept requests that he serve as foreign minister in the transition government.

Netanyahu said he agreed to take the job because Israel is in a crisis. "We know that we are in the toughest security situation, we know that we are on the eve of war in Iraq," Netanyahu told a news conference.