Lawmakers Overwhelmingly Approve Disbanding Knesset

Eight bills dissolving Knesset are all passed in initial readings; President Katsav says he accepts MKs decision.

A massive majority of some 80 lawmakers approved eight bills to dissolve the Knesset on Monday evening.

President Moshe Katsav said Monday evening he would accept a decision made by lawmakers to disband the Knesset and hold early elections on March 28.

"My goal is that, during the interim period until elections, the state will continue to operate properly. The prime minister's hands must not be tied," Katsav said.

The president intends to ensure that Knesset factions will allow Sharon to nominate ministers to serve during the interim period in the event that early elections are ordered by legislative decree rather than by presidential order.

The Knesset House Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ally, MK Roni Bar-On, has not yet decided whether to debate the bills themselves or pass them on to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by MK Michael Eitan, who is staying in Likud.

Slightly earlier, eight Labor Party ministers submitted letters of resignation from the government.

MK Gideon Sa'ar, the chairman of the Likud's Knesset faction, announced earlier Monday that the two largest factions, Likud and Labor, had agreed to vote on the bill.

Sa'ar did not, however, indicate whether the two sides have agreed on an elections date.

The president said after the meeting that Sharon had told him he had come to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on as prime minister within the current Knesset.

Katsav said he would make a quick decision on Sharon's request after consulting Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, and added that an early election appears inevitable in the current political climate.

Katsav said the law gave him 21 days to decide, but that he would do so quickly. Asked whether the decision would be made within days, he replied, "less than days."

"Of course, I think we need to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections as soon as possible," he added.

By law, elections would be held within 90 days. THis means that the vote will take place by the beginning of March 2006, several weeks before the March 28 date discussed Labor and Likud representatives on Sunday. Army Radio said Monday that March 8 was now the most likely date for the elections.

Sa'ar said he is trying to form a bloc of 61 MKs who would support an alternative prime minister, but it remained unlikely that a single candidate could muster majority support.

Israel Radio quoted Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a Likud hard-liner, as saying Monday that Katsav should not immediately agree to dissolve the Knesset.

Likud to vote for new chairman Following Sharon's departure, Likud Central Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi will take over the party chairmanship. Israel Radio reported he will convene the Likud Central Committee on Thursday in order to vote for a new chairman.

The long list of expected contenders which included MK Benjamin Netanyahu, MK Uzi Landau - the leader of the so-called Likud "rebels," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and MK Yisrael Katz.

Likud officials said Sharon made his final decision to leave the Likud over the weekend, at his Negev ranch, after consulting with his sons and a few close associates, including the former head of his bureau, Uri Shani, and publicist Reuven Adler.

MK Benjamin Netanyahu had asked Ministers Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Gideon Ezra on Sunday to remain in the Likud.