JERUSALEM — ISRAELI Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in opting for earlier elections, plans to ride a popularity wave to help speed up the Mideast peace process.
The election, one of the most important in the state's 48-year-old history, will set Israel's course in tough negotiations over a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians, which are due to begin in May, and in ongoing peace talks with Syria.
By moving the election from fall to May or June, Mr. Peres hopes to win his own mandate for peace three months after assuming power from Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination hurt the opponents of peace within Israel.
The election will pit Peres's dovish Labor Party against the hawkish Likud Party. The Labor Party has forged a peace deal with Jordan, as well as an interim peace deal with the Palestinians, and is forging ahead in talks with a land-for-peace deal with Syria.
The Likud Party, on the other hand, wants to slow down the peace process with the Palestinians and retain control of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
It also will be the first time Israelis directly elect their prime minister in a historic shift to a quasi-American-style system.
After the shuttle
Israeli political observers say that a late May date likely will be chosen for the election. Peres says he will formally announce the date on Feb. 15, after US Secretary of State Warren Christopher completes his current peacemaking shuttle to Syria and Israel.
Previously, both Peres and Mr. Christopher had hoped to conclude a peace agreement with Syria by summer or fall, in time to clinch Peres's reelection in the fall and bolster President Clinton's presidential campaign. But Peres apparently decided that a deal with Syria was not likely to be wrapped up this year - and so decided to advance the election date.
The call for an early election could put more pressure on Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to speed up the process and agree to an early summit with Peres.
''There is sufficient reason to advance the elections,'' said Peres over the weekend, speaking from the Swiss resort town of Davos. ''In effect, the election campaign has already begun ... a campaign that goes on for 10 months ... is a waste of time and money.''
Israeli observers say that the real reason behind Peres's decision is his desire to capitalize on the popularity that he has enjoyed since Rabin's assassination.
Recent polls have shown that Peres is currently running ahead of his right-wing Likud rival Binyamin Netanyahu by a 16 to 23 point margin - but that edge could evaporate if he waits for elections. ''Peres's calculation is that if the elections are advanced, it will be hard for the Likud to close the gap,'' says Israeli political analyst Hanan Kristal.
Prior to Rabin's death, Mr. Netanyahu was running even with him in popularity polls. Peres, meanwhile, was regarded as a clever international diplomat, but lacked public popular support.
The assassination, however, triggered a popular backlash against the right-wing Likud Party and against Netanyahu, who was perceived as too tolerant of the verbal slander of Rabin that preceded his murder by a right-wing extremist. The assassination also sharpened criticism of Netanyahu as a politician who lacked the longtime diplomatic and military experience of Rabin and Peres.
Peres, meanwhile, began to be perceived more sympathetically as an elder statesman, whose own political history extended back to the early days of the state, and who had worked closely with Rabin to promote the recent breakthroughs in Mideast peace.
Peres's own personal popularity will be a crucial issue in the upcoming race, since he will be competing with Netanyahu in the first-ever direct elections for the prime minister's position.
The elections represent a break from the strictly parliamentary style Israel has followed in the past, in which political blocs competed for voters, and the political leader of the strongest faction became prime minister only after forming a governing coalition supported by a majority of Knesset (parliament) members.
The system gave Israel's many small political parties a disproportionate amount of power in the politics of coalition-building, and coalitions often shifted and changed during a prime minister's single four-year term.
The popular mandate granted by the direct-election system is intended to give the prime minister a stronger hand in forming and running a government, and penalize Knesset members with the threat of new elections if the prime minister fails to win majority support. ''It's a sort of entrance into the American presidential system, but via the back door,'' Mr. Kristal says.
Likud backs down
After months of slamming Israel's peace deal with the Palestinians, Likud's political leadership also met Sunday evening and announced that it would honor Israel's signed peace accords and continue negotiations with the recently elected Palestinian Authority, if the party gained power.
''I hope that we won't get to the point where I have to shake hands with Yasser Arafat, but the PA is an elected body, and with them we have to negotiate,'' says Yehoshua Matza, a member of the Likud.
Mr. Arafat, president of the PA, could very well help Peres win reelection if he succeeds in deleting the Palestinian National Covenant's sections that call for the destruction of Israel. Arafat is convening the Palestine National Council, parliament in exile, in Gaza this spring to repeal that section. Peres has been criticized for failing so far to ''deliver'' on the Palestinian promise to repeal the covenant sections.