Syria peace hope tempts Peres to polls

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Israel's Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, yesterday gave a clear indication that he may call an early general election to win a new mandate for his Labour government and spur on peace talks with Syria.

Israeli officials close to the Prime Minister said they believed the balance of probability now favoured an election before the scheduled date of 29 October. There have been fierce arguments inside the government over the best tactical timing for the polls. Labour has held a commanding lead over the opposition Likud party since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on 4 November last year, but the gap may be narrowing.

Mr Peres, speaking on a visit to London, said he believed there were political and economic factors that pointed towards the desirability of an early election. "I feel we have to have a renewed mandate," he said. "Usually I would like to see the election take place on time, but there are some considerations ... that might make for an early election."

The Israeli leader said he would make his calculations on the basis of his policies, not his daily performance in the opinion polls. "I think popularity is like a weather forecast," he said. "It's good for the day it happens, but you don't collect weather forecasts to make a biography."

Mr Peres revealed that the latest round of talks between Israel and Syria in the US had "gained a character of total informality", and included wide-ranging discussions on economic co-operation, the normalisation of relations and water issues.

The Israeli leader's assessment conflicted with that in yesterday's edition of the Syrian official newspaper, Al Thawra, which accused Israel of making "impossible and provocative demands regarding the security arrangements". The talks wound up on Wednesday at the secluded Wye Plantation, near Washington, without any breakthrough that might help Mr Peres with the voters.

None the less, Mr Peres insisted yesterday that "it is only a matter of time before we have peace with Syria" and said he expected progress during the next visit to the Middle East by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

The two foes remain divided over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights and the nature of the security regime accompanying a settlement. Syria says the military arrangements ought to be "balanced and equal", but there is disagreement about the symmetry of troop deployment. Israel is worried about its narrow band of territory in Galilee, and Syria about the short distance between the front line and its capital.

Mr Peres was travelling to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after meeting John Major, Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and senior members of the Shadow Cabinet in London. He described relations between Britain and Israel as "exceedingly friendly" and said, without elaborating, that relations between the British and Israeli defence establishments were growing. British sources described the talks as warm and co-operative.