Israel Awaits Netanyahu Return as Politicians Get Cold Feet about Elections
Israel awaited the return of its brash former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday amid widespread media reports that the political establishment was getting cold feet about new elections.
Netanyahu is widely tipped to be plotting a political comeback following Prime Minister Ehud Barak's decision last week to bow to pressure from the right-wing opposition and call for early elections in the face of more than two months of deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The 51-year-old political machiavellian, who was defeated by Barak in elections in May last year, is due back in Israel Monday evening after a lecture tour of the United States.
Although he is riding high in opinion polls, which show he would easily beat Barak in the race for Prime Minister, political commentators say he is unlikely to reveal his intentions just yet.
The polls also show Netanyahu is more popular than Ariel Sharon, his hawkish successor as leader of the Likud, Israel's second largest political party.
Last week, parliament approved on first reading last week a Likud bill to dissolve the 120-member Knesset and hold new elections, but at least two political parties have said they may vote against the legislation in future.
Both the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas and the staunchly secular Shinui are anxious about the prospect of early polls, particularly given plans to abolish the system of directly electing the prime minister which they fear will sharply reduce their influence in parliament.
There are also continued contacts between Labor party and Likud, the main opposition party, on forming a national unity government that would avert the need for elections even though Sharon has repeatedly rejected Barak's calls to join forces.
"I am under the impression that there is an option of going to a national unity government," Environment Minister Dalia Itzhik was quoted in the press Monday as saying.
Israeli press reports suggested that the early elections bill may not win the required absolute majority of 61 votes on second and third reading.
"As the Likud and Labor near agreement on a date for early elections, concern is on the rise among the political parties over whether dissolving the Knesset will really serve their interests and if perhaps it would be best to stop the process before it is too late," the top-selling Yediot Aharonot said -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
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