February 11, 1996
Web posted at: 10:52 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres gave a formal stamp Sunday to what Israelis have known for the past two weeks -- national elections are being advanced five months, to the end of May.
"There is a need to renew the mandate for negotiations toward peace," he said at a news conference announcing that he had informed President Ezer Weizman of his decision. (77K AIFF sound or 77K WAV sound)
The exact date -- probably May 28 -- will be announced after consultation with the opposition.
Whoever is elected prime minister will have much greater clout than usual in the critical post-election coalition building period. For the first time in Israel, voting for prime minister will be direct, distinct from elections for parties in the 120-seat Knesset.
Peres has a comfortable lead in the polls over right-wing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist David Levi. Peres' Labor Party is also well in front, allowing their top luminaries -- like Foreign Minister Ehud Barak -- to make campaign forays into such normally off-limits opposition strongholds such as the Jerusalem fruit market.
Yitzhak Rabin and Peres were cheered together at a major peace rally on the night Rabin was shot. Since the November 4 assassination, there's been dramatic turnabout in support for Labor's peace strategy.
Still, nagging doubts persist within Labor's own ranks about Peres' ability to win.
"The Prime Minister ... is also going into these elections burdened with the fact that he is what some people call a born loser," said political analyst Chemi Shalev, noting that Peres has never won an election. (145K AIFF sound or 145K WAV sound)
Another danger on Peres' road to a ballot box victory comes from radical Palestinians. The Islamic opposition vows to continue striking at Israel. Peres is counting on Yasser Arafat's Palestinian security forces to help thwart them. And Arafat is confident of the outcome of the Israeli elections.
"Those who had signed the peace of the brave between Palestinians and Israelis will continue their road," Arafat said.
The Palestinian leader's own recent election triumph showed just how closely intertwined are the political fortunes of the two leaders.
Arafat's ability to help keep the peace process firmly on course would be a big boost for Peres when Israelis vote in May, effectively to endorse or reject Peres' peace strategy.
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