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Israel calls early elections

Sharon: Elections during this period are not what the state needs

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called early elections to be held within 90 days after his attempts to put together a new coalition government failed.

Sharon had been trying to put together a new narrow-based coalition since the Labor Party resigned from his national unity government last week.

The announcement came following an early Tuesday meeting with President Moshe Katsav at which Sharon asked for the Knesset to be dissolved and elections to be called.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, said Tuesday he has accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer to serve during the interim as the country's foreign minister.

Elections are expected to be held on January 28.

Sharon had offered the post to Netanyahu after the coalition government collapsed, and over the weekend Netanyahu said he would only join the administration if Sharon called early elections.

At his morning news conference Sharon, citing security and economic concerns, including possible U.S. military action against Iraq, said: "Elections during this period are not what the state needs."

"Since the irresponsible resignation of the Labor Party I have been in touch with a large number of leaders to see whether they would throw their lot in with the government.

"Unfortunately all sorts of requirements were posed which I could not agree to, for the sake of the country.

"I will not deviate from national responsibility, I will not change the government's basic lines nor will I impair the profound strategic agreements we have with the United States.

"I will not throw away the good of the country for narrow-based party political considerations."

At an earlier news conference, Katsav called on members of parliament to put the interests of the country ahead of their political interests.

"All parties must co-operate to run the affairs of the country," he said.

Sharon's government Monday survived three no-confidence votes in the Knesset, but had not been able to bring the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction into his coalition to give his bloc at least 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.

Labor members -- led by then-Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer -- said Sharon was allocating too much money in the 2003 budget -- about $147 million -- to Jewish settlements in the disputed territories. They wanted the money spent on social causes.

Sharon, whose coalition survived for 20 months, has been an ardent supporter of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Besides Ben-Eliezer, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and five other Labor ministers resigned from the Cabinet.

Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, said the Palestinian Authority considered the split in the government an internal matter, but added: "We hope that the Israeli people will choose and elect a government that is capable of making peace.

"The Israeli people deserve a leadership that can deliver peace and not a government like the current one of settlements, reoccupation bloodshed and chaos.

"We hope that the Israeli public will elect a government that will lead towards historic reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis."

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