JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel edged closer on Thursday to an early election over corruption allegations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after a key coalition partner voiced support for legislation that would force a ballot.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that “as things stand now” the Labour Party he heads would press for a preliminary vote in the Knesset on June 25 to dissolve parliament, unless Olmert’s Kadima party acted first to ensure “government stability”.
Under pressure from within centrist Kadima, Olmert met two senior party legislators on Wednesday and instructed them to begin preparations for an internal leadership election, but no date was set for a primary.
Barak, a former prime minister, has called on Olmert to step aside in the scandal.
Such a move could enable Kadima to regroup around a new party leader, maintain its partnership with centre-left Labour and avoid an early election that opinion polls show Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud would win.
The Likud has called for a preliminary vote on June 18 to dissolve parliament. A Knesset spokeswoman said a firm date for the vote –one of three needed before the proposal is approved — would be set only on Monday.
Even if the legislation passes its first vote this month, final approval could stretch past parliament’s summer recess, which begins on Aug. 3 and ends on Oct. 26.
Political commentators have been speculating about a November general election should the Knesset be dissolved. By moving slowly, politicians would buy time to await the outcome of a police investigation into suspicions that Olmert illegally received $150,000 from a U.S. businessman over a 15-year period before he became prime minister in 2006.
Olmert, who has denied any wrongdoing in accepting what he termed legal contributions to election campaigns he waged, has said he would resign if indicted.
An early election in Israel — a national vote is not due until 2010 — would disrupt the U.S.-brokered peace talks it has been holding with the Palestinians on a framework statehood deal that Washington hopes can be reached this year.