Peres brings Israeli election forward to May

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, announced last night that Israel will hold elections, the outcome of which will be critical for peace negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria, six months early.

Mr Peres said he wanted to hold the election on 21 or 24 May, but a final date would be announced after consultations with the opposition Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Whatever the timing, it will be held under the shadow of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but the backlash against the right will not necessarily guarantee victory for Mr Peres and the Labour Party.

Labour will try to win by emphasising the success of the Oslo peace accords, which have become more popular with Israeli voters because there have been no recent suicide bomb attacks. It will highlight the smoothness of the pull-out from the West Bank cities, and the Palestinian elections, which are seen as a success. The right will try to focus the election on the dangers of a deal with Syria and giving up the Golan Heights.

If Mr Peres loses, then the peace negotiations with the Palestinians are likely to be frozen, but not reversed. Mr Netanyahu, says he will not meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. He would also refuse to return the Golan, without which Syria says there can be no peace.

For the first time Israelis will vote separately for the prime minister and the 120-member Knesset. Mr Netanyahu is at least 10 points behind Mr Peres, but in the Knesset, where Labour and its allies have 63 seats, new centre parties may eat into the Labour vote.