Labor Sources: Barak Seeks Early General Elections

Defense Minister meets with opposition leader Netanyahu, reportedly to prepare for possibility of elections.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu met late Saturday night at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss political developments, following the election of Kadima's new leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

They agreed to continue to regularly meet, while sources in Labor say the two men are cooperating to prepare for the possibility of early elections, which Barak seeks.

Livni is likely to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when the latter announces his resignation, possibly as early as today.

Barak and Netanyahu are Livni's rivals in a race for the premiership if early elections are called. Barak's aides said that since Livni was not working to establish a national unity government, action needed to be taken in that direction.

Senior Labor Party figures said Barak understands that he has to prevent Livni from consolidating her popularity from the prime minister's chair, but does not want to be criticized for provoking elections. Barak is said to believe that Netanyahu will not join a Livni government, and this could be his pretext to call for elections. Livni's associates said it was strange that Barak met with the opposition leader before finding time to meet with Livni, despite her attempts since Thursday to schedule such a meeting.

Netanyahu has called on Livni to announce early elections. A senior official close to the foreign minister said Livni was considering offering Netanyahu the Finance Ministry. If Netanyahu were to accept, Livni's aides said she would offer the Foreign Ministry to the current finance minister, Roni Bar-On.

Netanyahu served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, leading a series of economic measures including the cutting of child allowances. A proposal to Netanyahu might put pressure on Barak to join a Livni government so as not to lose important portfolios to Likud.

Olmert is expected to announce his intention to resign at today's cabinet meeting. Olmert may also meet with President Shimon Peres as early as today to submit his resignation letter. Peres is due to leave for New York tomorrow night to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and will return a week from today. He is reportedly considering putting off his trip by a day to begin the consultations.

After the prime minister's resignation, which goes into effect immediately, Peres would begin marathon consultations with party leaders, with the intention of appointing the candidate with the best chance to form a new government.