Israel's Supreme Court shortened Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's term by a year Tuesday in a ruling that could further weaken his minority government and complicate a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The court ruled that elections must be held by November 2006, saying the original November 2007 date was based on a mistaken interpretation of electoral law.
The high court's ruling on the election date added to a growing political uncertainty. Last month, Sharon lost his parliamentary majority over the Gaza withdrawal plan, with hard-liners quitting or getting fired from the coalition.
Commentators said early elections are likely in coming months unless Sharon manages to stabilize his coalition by bringing in the opposition Labor Party.
The court ruling made it less attractive for Labor to join the government because it would be in power for a much shorter period. Labor, which supports a Gaza withdrawal, has been sending conflicting signals, indicating it is ready to negotiate with Sharon while criticizing his economic policies.
"The result of this decision is that it apparently prevents the Labor Party from crawling into a national unity government led by Sharon," said Ahmed Tibi, an opposition legislator opposed to a Likud-Labor government.
Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin said elections should be held well before November 2006 if Sharon fails to bring in Labor. "This is a government that is on its last breath. It's actually incapable of doing anything. It's only killing time," said Rivlin, a member of Sharon's Likud Party.
Sharon has pledged to carry out his withdrawal from Gaza by the end of 2005, but Gaza violence or political maneuvering could delay that plan. Elections were last held in February 2003. In recent years, Israeli governments have collapsed well before their four-year terms expired, mainly because of the deep divisions over the conflict with the Palestinians.
Also Tuesday, Israel's police minister said he thinks Jewish extremists are plotting to assassinate leading politicians to stop the dismantling of settlements. "They will assassinate the prime minister, a minister, an army official or a police official," Tsahi Hanegbi told Israel TV's Channel Two.