Israel's parliament began a debate Monday on one of two bills that will determine whether the nation will go to the polls to choose a new legislature as well as Prime Minister, reported AFP.
The outcome of the votes is also likely to settle the political future of former right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu, seen as the most dangerous obstacle to embattled Prime Minister Ehud Barak's chances of re-election.
A special election for Prime Minister is expected to be held in February after Barak, who has been in office for only 17 months, resigned to seek a new electoral mandate and to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians, according to the agency.
Parliament is due to vote Monday on the so-called "Bibi bill" that would change the electoral law to allow Netanyahu, the once-discredited hero of the right wing, to run for the nation's highest office.
The former prime minister, who quit politics after his landslide defeat to Barak in May 1999, is barred from the leadership race because only sitting MPs are eligible for the post under current law.
However, Netanyahu himself is opposed to changing the legislation, saying he would only stand for prime minister if the Knesset votes to dissolve itself and hold early elections in tandem with the vote for the nation's leader, which would automatically qualify him to run, said the agency.
The 120-member Knesset is also due to vote on an opposition bill calling for such elections, with the outcome not expected until late Monday night.
The fate of the early elections bill hinges on the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which backs Netanyahu but is reluctant to have legislative elections because of fears it will lose some of its 17 seats, making it the parliament's third largest bloc.
Netanyahu enjoys a 19-point lead over Barak, according to the latest opinion polls, said AFP.
In the meantime, the chairman of the Likud's elections committee has ruled that if the Knesset fails by Tuesday to approve either the "Bibi Bill" or the bill to dissolve the parliament, Ariel Sharon will be declared the party's candidate for the premiership, according to Haaretz newspaper.
The final voting on the bills is expected to be completed by Tuesday morning, ahead of the Likud primaries in which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to unseat Sharon as the party's choice to face Prime Minister Ehud Barak in expected early elections, said the paper.
The third candidate in the Likud primaries, Moshe Feiglin, a leader of the militant right-wing "Zu artzenu" [This is Our Land] movement, would also be ruled ineligible under the present restrictions, said Haaretz -- (Several Sources)
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