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The winter session of of the Knesset could be dissolved as early as next week, now that President Shimon Peres has announced that the government is headed for early elections.

A decision on whether to cut short the winter session - which opened on Monday - is expected to be made on Tuesday, in talks between Knesset Speaker Dahlia Itzik and the Knesset faction heads.

During the meeting, Itzik and the faction heads will also determine what can be covered in the remaining week and a half of the session.

Peres formally set into motion procedures for a national ballot on Monday, when he said during the opening of the winter session of Knesset that consultations with political parties had yielded no results and there was no chance of reaching a deal now to form a new coalition government.

Following Peres' announcement, Knesset has up to three weeks to dissolve itself and set an election date, widely expected to be scheduled for February 10. It is likely that the parliament will choose to disband as early Wednesday, November 5.

"This is the time for Israel's Knesset and political system to do some deep soul-searching," he urged lawmakers. "It is never too late to fix mistakes."

"In the coming days, Israel will be entering into a decisive electoral period. This is the first and immediate test set before you - the choice of the people," Peres said.

As the polticial system enters these elections, said the president, lawmakers must remain focus on Israel's strength in the face of its enemies. "Israel must stand strong and if sentenced to fight, must be able to be victorious over every enemy that comes our way," he said.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu declared Monday, at the opening of the Knesset's winter session, that Israel must not negotiate over the division of Jerusalem or the absorption of Palestinian refugees.

Netanyahu, who in the last two years has been the clear front-runner in polls which asked prospective voters their choice for prime minister, spoke just after President Shimon Peres announced that Israel was headed for early election.

Netanyahu told Knesset that if he becomes prime minister, he will seek peace with the surrounding Arab countries, but said Israel must not give up Golan Heights, large parts of the West Bank or any of Jerusalem.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in his remarks to the Knesset, just after Peres' announcement, that he appreciated Livni's efforts to form a coalition and regretted the political circumstances that had made it impossible.

He added that he intended to remain committed as premier until the elections and to carry it out "with the same responsibility, care and professionalism with which I have acted until now."

Shas chief brands Livni allies 'racist, phony, condescending'

In an unprecedented attack on Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's team in coalition talks, Eli Yishai, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, Monday branded the members of the team "phony, racist and condescending."

Yishai was speaking to his party faction ahead of the Monday afternoon opening of the Knesset's winter session, likely to be cut short by the early elections.

The Shas leader's remarks came in response to Kadima official's characterization of the ultra-Orthodox party's demands as "extortion."

"It's interesting that they didn't call the Labor Party, which received NIS 1.5 billion under the coalition agreement,m extortionists," Yishai told the Shas MKs.

"We are speaking here of racism and condescension."

Yishai went on to voice thanks to Kadima, saying that its actions would only expand Shas' Knesset strength in the coming election.

"If he who helps ailing children is called an extortionist, then I am an extortionist," Yishai said, adding that the Kadima attacks would "boomerang on the attackers."

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  • Livni aims for elections as soon as possible, seeks Knesset dissolution