Israeli election date no later than March 28

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has asked President Moshe Katsav to dissolve the Knesset (Israel's unicameral or single-chamber parliament). Mr Sharon has also announced that he is leaving Israel's right-wing Likud party to form a new political movement aimed at the political centre of Israeli politics. Meanwhile, President Katsav has proposed a date of "no later" than March 28 2006 for elections.

The Knesset can vote to set a different date for the election, and my instant gut feeling is that it might not suit either Likud or Labour to go along with a snap election as both parties will have recently changed leaders and both may be wary of giving Mr Sharon the benefit of a short election campaign. (I wouldn't in their shoes, but then I'm not hired by any of the parties to do their campaign strategy, so what do they know!)

The fractious nature of Israel's proportional representation system makes such Mr Sharon's move difficult to predict. Small and often extreme political parties tend to hold disproportionate bargaining power in the formation of a coalition government. Mr Sharon appears to be calculating that he is better off outside Likud and offering to support either of the main two parties (Labour being the left-wing party), in exchange for a moderate position towards the Palestinian Authority.

In America or in the U.K., such a move would be a simple case of political suicide. However, with a proportional representation system, it's in the hands of the party horsetraders... after the next election.

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