Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Tuesday (Dec 2) for early elections as he fired two key ministers in his coalition for opposing government policy.
The sackings were the latest move in a political crisis that will come to a head on Wednesday when lawmakers vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, or Knesset. That would set the stage for a vote expected in March or April, in what would be Israel's second general election in just over two years.
"I will not tolerate any opposition in my government," Netanyahu said of the sacking of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. "I won't accept ministers attacking the policy and head of the government from within," he said in a statement.
Netanyahu said he would call for parliament to be dissolved "as soon as possible to go to the people and get a clear mandate to lead Israel."
Cracks in Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition emerged over the 2015 budget and a contentious bill aimed at enshrining Israel's status as the Jewish state in law, a move critics say could harm its Arab minority.
The Jewish state bill was strongly opposed by Lapid, a crucial coalition partner who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, and by Livni who chairs HaTnuah, also centrist. The two parties account for 25 of the coalition's 68 seats.
The coalition was pieced together after a January 2013 general election, with the next poll theoretically not due until November 2017. To pass, the vote on dissolving parliament will need an absolute majority within the 120-member Knesset, requiring support from members of the ruling coalition.
NETANYAHU LIKELY TO RETURN
Sources in Netanyahu's Likud party told AFP that members of the coalition were likely to support the bill. "The trend within Likud and within the coalition in general is to vote in favour," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The political tensions peaked on Monday after Netanyahu-Lapid talks aimed at heading off the crisis collapsed.
Netanyahu demanded Lapid give in to five demands for the government to continue - including agreement to freeze his own flagship initiative for zero per cent value-added tax on first home purchases, and to support the Jewish state bill.
Lapid refused, accusing Netanyahu of "irresponsibly" pursuing personal interests over those of the public, saying he "decided to take Israel to unnecessary elections".
Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said recent polls showed strong support for rightwing parties. "They have a majority in public opinion polls, and that means that there is a very good chance Netanyahu will continue to be prime minister."
Should the right chalk up gains in a new election, it would diminish even further the chances of resuming dialogue with the Palestinians after the collapse of US-led peace talks in April. The political crisis comes amid increasing tensions with the Palestinians, with a growing wave of unrest and deadly "lone wolf" attacks.
With peace talks firmly off the agenda, Israel has seen a steady slide to the right. And as chatter has grown about the possibility of early elections, Netanyahu has taken an increasingly hardline stance, throwing his weight behind controversial rightwing initiatives, notably the Jewish state bill.
Critics say that law, which has yet to be put to a vote, would come at the expense of democracy and would institutionalise discrimination against minorities. Analysts say Netanyahu's support for the bill is a gesture to Likud hardliners ahead of party primaries in January.
In the last election, Likud ran on a joint ticket with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, securing a narrow victory of 31 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 19. But the alliance was dismantled earlier this year, leaving Likud with just 18 seats and Yesh Atid the largest party.