Peace talks on hold until February vote

Israeli legislators agreed to set Feb. 10 as the date for early elections following the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (pictured). Opinion polls suggest the ruling Kadima party, now led by Tzipi Livni (pictured) is likely to win.


Israel's political parties decided on Tuesday to hold early elections on February 10, a decision that will leave US-backed Middle East peace talks on hold for months.

"Following a meeting of the Knesset factions it was decided that the elections will be held on February 10," said Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes, adding that parliament will adjourn on November 11.

Both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party and the right-wing Likud party of hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, the two frontrunners for prime minister, had pressed for elections as soon as possible.

President Shimon Peres formally initiated the election process on Monday after Livni failed to form a new coalition.

Livni, 50, was elected Kadima leader last month and hopes to take over as premier from Ehud Olmert, who stepped down in September over graft allegations but remains caretaker prime minister.

Earlier on Tuesday, two Israeli ministers called for a freeze on already stalled talks with Syria and the Palestinians until a new government is sworn in.

"(Negotiations) cannot advance during the election period with us and the United States," said Interior Minister and Kadima MP Meir Sheetrit.

"In the current political situation no agreement can be ratified by the transitional government and parliament. There can be no significant progress and the Syrians and the Palestinians understand this," he told public radio.

National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a senior Labour party member, said the interim government "cannot make strategic decisions affecting the existence of the state of Israel."

"On security issues it must act, but as far as political issues are concerned it is better to wait for the results of the elections and the formation of the next government," the former defence minister said.

Israel and the Palestinians formally relauched peace talks at a US-hosted conference last November. Their goal was to end their decades-old conflict by the end of this year, but the talks have made little visible progress.

The White House nevertheless said on Monday it would press ahead with efforts to secure a full peace agreement by the time President George W. Bush leaves office in January, despite Israel's political uncertainty.

An Israeli foreign ministry official said that while work on the diplomatic front would slow down in the coming months, contacts with the Palestinians would continue.

So would preparations for a scheduled meeting in Egypt next month of the two sides with the Middle East Quartet made up of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

In May, Israel also entered into indirect Turkish-brokered talks with Syria, reviving negotiations that collapsed in 2000 over the fate of the strategic Golan Heights plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Setting the tone for his campaign, Netanyahu made it clear that if elected, he would set clear limits on what is negotiable.

"We will not conduct negotiations on Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for the past three thousand years," he said in a speech to parliament.

"We will not return to the 1967 borders," he said, adding that the Golan as well as the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert in the occupied West Bank "will continue to serve as the state of Israel's eastern security belt."

An opinion poll published on Monday by Israel's mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said if the vote were held today Kadima -- currently the largest party in parliament -- would win the most seats, with Likud a close second and the centre-left Labour a distant third.

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