Sharon ally hints at early elections in March

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The Independent Online

A March general election in Israel was all but predicted yesterday by one of Ariel Sharon's senior cabinet colleagues in the wake of last week's ousting of veteran Labour leader Shimon Peres.

The new Labour leader Amir Peretz is due to meet the Israeli Prime Minister today to discuss election timing after warning that he planned to pull his party out of the governing coalition.

Sylvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister and a prominent figure in Likud, said Mr Sharon had told him there was "no reason to delay the matter" of bringing forward the election from its planned date in November 2006.

Mr Shalom, speaking from a conference in Tunisia where he briefly met the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Israeli Radio: "I met the Prime Minister after the cabinet meeting on Sunday and we discussed it. If Mr Peretz wants elections he can get elections. March is the right month."

The remarks are not conclusive and there could be weeks of politicking before the election date is finally set. But it will contribute to a growing sense in the Israeli political establishment that Mr Sharon's second term is near its end.

Mr Peretz's victory has greatly narrowed Mr Sharon's options, as he had relied on Labour to sustain his coalition after the party split over disengagement from Gaza. The secular party Shinui has said that it will not return to government to replace Labour in the coalition. While Mr Sharon retains the option of formalising the split in his own party by forming a new "centre" grouping, a new opinion poll suggests that Mr Sharon's chances of defeating a challenge from his main right wing rival, his former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Likud leadership have markedly improved in recent weeks.

The Haaretz-Dialog poll found that if the expected four-way contest were conducted today, Mr Sharon would win 47 per cent of the vote, with his three right-wing challengers Mr Netanyahu, Knesset member Uzi Landau and the most extreme of all, Moshe Feiglin, who leads the infiltrationist Jewish Leadership faction, on 23 per cent, 9 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.

In a two-man race with Mr Netanyahu who, like the other two contestants bitterly opposed withdrawal from Gaza, Mr Sharon would win by 51 per cent to 31 per cent, a five-point rise in the gap between the two men since six weeks ago.

Mr Peretz's shock victory in the Labour Party leadership contest could make Mr Sharon hesitate before a final decision to remain in Likud and face the challenge from Mr Netanyahu, because it confounded similar poll results suggesting that the incumbent Shimon Peres would win by a comfortable margin. But there are signs that the Peretz victory has significantly weakened Mr Netanyahu's position, since he is most associated with the hard-nosed, benefit-cutting social and economic policy which the new Labour leader could well focus his attack on in the election campaign.

* The European Union is ready to send 50 to 70 inspectors to the Gaza-Egypt border by 25 November, the target date for opening the crossing to Palestinian traffic, the EU's Middle East envoy said yesterday.

The team, which will be headed by an Italian police general, has the task of training the Palestinians to run a professional border terminal, while monitoring the Rafah crossing to allay Israeli concerns that militant leaders or advanced weapons will slip into Gaza.