Israel's president on Wednesday set March 28 as the date for early elections after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit his ruling Likud to campaign as a centrist ready to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Parties and politicians have been thrown into frantic maneuvering since Sharon's announcement on Monday gave Israeli politics their biggest jolt for decades and set the stage for elections to be held before they were due in November 2006.
President Moshe Katsav said he had signed the order setting the election date and dissolving parliament after consultations with lawmakers and party leaders. Parliament may also vote later to approve the decision.
For procedural reasons, the order will only take effect on December 8. Sharon will stay on as prime minister until elections and should have a free hand to change his cabinet before then.
Polls suggest that the biggest gamble of Sharon's political career could come off and that he would be re-elected for a third term as prime minister, with leftist Labor behind him and the remains of the right-wing Likud in third place.
Sharon quit Likud so that he could try to end conflict with the Palestinians without having to fight off a rearguard of Likud hardliners who opposed his widely popular withdrawal of troops and settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip.
Sharon secured formal recognition of his "National Responsibility" party as a parliamentary faction and won his first convert from Labor on Wednesday. Most of the 16 deputies who declared in favor so far are from Likud, Reuters reports.