Haaretz is reporting that the elections will be held on March 28. In the interim, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be able to appoint ministers (including replacements for the Labor ministers who have withdrawn) without Knesset approval. This decision resulted from an act by Israel’s President Moshe Katsav that has raised some constitutional controversies, with many Knesset members (MKs) believing the president acted outside his authority in dissolving the Knesset rather than waiting for the Knesset to dissolve itself, which would have restricted Sharon’s discretion in the interim.
The question over the PM’s discretion is especially important right now, given that Sharon is now the head of a new party that he has just created, rather than of the Likud that originally appointed him.
As Israellycool notes (quoting from a Jerusalem Post story), the degree of discretion the PM has over the caretaker cabinet, as well as the time-frame for the new election, depends on how the Knesset is dissolved–by the President, or by the Knesset itself.
according to law, if the president dissolves the Knesset, a prime minister has an unlimited right to dismiss or replace ministers in his cabinet. [...]
However, if the Knesset dissolves itself, the law states, a prime minister cannot reshuffle his cabinet in any way.
Not surprisingly, Sharon wanted the discretion that a presidential proclamation on dissolution would give him, while other parties in the Knesset did not want him to have that, and were preparing bills to for the chamber’s auto-dissolution. Sharon won this–mostly. He had hoped for elections in early March, and compromised on March 28; had the Knesset dissolved itself, the elections could have been set for even later, which might have been more favorable to Likud and some other parties than to Sharon. (See the above-linked Haaretz story.)
This whole affair raises some interesting constitutional questions about the role of an unelected and mostly ceremonial presidency in a multiparty parliamentary system (as did the controversy over early elections in Germany). As Haaretz notes:
The office of the presidency is largely ceremonial, and by law the president’s powers are limited. Although dissolving the Knesset and assisting in the formation of a new government are among the few areas in which the president is allowed to intervene in Israeli politics, there is no precedent for a presidential request of parliament to consider freezing legislation.
Yet that is exactly what he did, with respect to the pending auto-dissolution bill (which passed an initial reading, 84-10, in the 120-seat Knesset). The president, of course, did not want a situation in which the departure of Likud’s ministers would leave only five or six ministers to run the government until after the elections, and that is why he pushed for an arrangement that would allow him to issue the dissolution proclamation.
The Debate Link and JeW*SCHooL also speculate on what Sharon’s new centrist party, National Responsibility, means for Shinui, an existing centrist and militantly secular party with 14 MKs. Shunui was in Sharon’s cabinet before Labor joined it in January; in fact, Labor’s decision to join then was largely to prevent Sharon’s cabinet from taking a greater right-wing tilt after Shinui’s ministers were fired on December 1, 2004 for voting against a budget that contained increased state subsidies for educational institutions favored by one of the small religious parties.
The formation of the unity government back in January also forestalled even earlier elections that would have put the Gaza withdrawal on hold (as would the more right-wing coalition that Sharon would have formed had Labor not joined with him). But, as we have seen in the past two weeks, joining the unity government also put Labor under internal strain, which finally has led us to where we are now: Early elections that will be contested with a significantly altered party lineup.
My earlier posts on these developments are: