JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his main political rivals agreed Thursday to hold elections early next year, a decision likely to freeze any plans to capitalize on Israel's Gaza withdrawal to restart Mideast peace talks.
Sharon, who remains Israel's most popular politician, had resisted moving up the election scheduled for next November but changed his mind after the Labor Party threatened to bolt the coalition, putting the survival of his government in doubt.
A series of urgent election-related meetings on Thursday overshadowed a fresh, hard-won agreement reached two days earlier on reopening the vital Gaza-Egypt crossing, illustrating that until a new government is in place, Israeli leaders will be concentrating on domestic politics instead of peacemaking.
Palestinians, too, are heading into an election season, with parliamentary balloting set for Jan. 25, featuring candidates from the Islamic militant group Hamas for the first time, mounting a serious challenge to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
There had been hopes that the pullout from the Gaza Strip would jump-start efforts toward a full peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, but the intervening weeks were dominated by haggling over the border crossing - an issue finally resolved with the direct intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.