JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called yesterday for early general elections, hoping public sorrow over the murder of Yitzhak Rabin will give him the victory he never achieved on his own and bolster support for the Middle East peace process.
Mr. Peres said he wants to hold elections May 21, advancing by five months the poll for prime minister and the parliament. The date could be adjusted by a week or so to suit other parties, he said.
"The period of stabilization has been completed," Mr. Peres said at a news conference. "The nation that grieved over their loss showed a strong wish to continue on the path to peace and security."
Last night's announcement officially opens a campaign that will pit Mr. Peres, 72, against Benjamin Netanyahu, 46. The younger, U.S.-educated politician is skilled in delivering a "sound bite," but is trailing in the polls because of accusations that his negative rhetoric helped create a climate for the Rabin assassination.
This election will be crucial to Israel's future in the Middle East. If Mr. Peres and his Labor Party partners gain a strong victory, it would be a mandate to continue to turn territory and power over to the Palestinians and to reach a peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon.
Those developments could lead to a regional peace and acceptance of Israel by most Arab countries. The costs would be Israel's withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights overlooking Galilee, and the likely establishment of a Palestinian state.
If Mr. Peres and Labor are defeated, the opposition Likud Party has vowed to put the brakes on the peace movement. The process of turning over the West Bank to the Palestinians would be frozen. Likud leader Mr. Netanyahu already has said he would refuse to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And he has ruled out withdrawal from the Golan Heights, nixing the possibility of a Syrian peace deal.
"In order to continue [the peace process] and reach new achievements, I must renew the mandate for the government and for me," Mr. Peres said last night.
Mr. Peres set the tone of his campaign last night by again describing his reaction to the assassination of Mr. Rabin in Tel Aviv Nov. 4, and by referring to the unfinished goals of he and Mr. Rabin.
A chief of the ruling Labor Party said Mr. Peres might ask members of Mr. Rabin's family to campaign for him because "there are still thousands of Israelis who believe [Mr. Rabin's assassin] did the right thing."
Labor Secretary-General Nissim Zvilli told the Hebrew daily Haaretz that the radicalism that led to Mr. Rabin's murder by an opponent of the peace process still is strong, and that voters should be reminded of the consequences.
That strategy presents a cutting irony for Mr. Peres, a proud man who long feuded with Mr. Rabin and would like to win an election with his own ideas and platform.
But in four previous attempts, Mr. Peres was unable to win a clear mandate. He was prime minister previously for two years only because his Labor Party and the opposition Likud failed to win a majority in 1984 and entered a power-sharing arrangement.
The decision to advance the general elections, originally set for Oct. 29, became almost inevitable as politicians and the Israeli news media were infected by election fever in the past few weeks. They have talked about little else.
Mr. Peres called for a short campaign "so as not to waste money." Israeli law requires at least a 90-day campaign period.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman, noting the usual rough and tumble of Israeli elections, called for a "civilized, proper" campaign "without physical or verbal violence."
Mr. Peres originally had hoped to delay the election to give him time to secure a peace treaty with Syria, but Israeli-Syrian negotiations at the Wye River Conference Centers on Maryland's Eastern Shore are moving too slowly.
This will be the first time in Israel that the prime minister is directly elected, instead of nominated by the winning political party. The procedural change is expected to focus the campaign more on personalities than parties, as in an American-style campaign.
In addition to Mr. Peres and Mr. Netanyahu, former Likud Foreign Minister David Levy might run. If no candidate receives a majority, there would be a runoff.
The 120-member parliament, the Knesset, still will be formed by voters who choose party "lists," not individual candidates.