Netanyahu fires 2 ministers, calls for early elections he’s likely to win

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dec. 1, 2014.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dec. 1, 2014. AP

After months of acrimony within his government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two centrist ministers Tuesday, accusing them of plotting to topple him.

The prime minister offered a blistering attack on Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, saying they’d repeatedly criticized his policies and schemed with ultra-Orthodox parties outside the governing coalition to unseat him.

“That’s called a putsch,” Netanyahu said in nationally televised remarks. “You can’t run a government that way, and you can’t lead a country that way.”

He said he’d move to dissolve Parliament and hold elections “as soon as possible.”

“I will no longer tolerate an opposition inside the government,” Netanyahu said.

Israeli media said the elections were expected to take place in March, just two years after the current government was sworn in and two years ahead of schedule. Recent public opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud party and its rightist allies are likely to gain enough parliamentary seats to win him a fourth term in office.

Political analysts said Netanyahu’s move indicated that he was fed up with his unruly coalition partners and preferred a more compliant government made up of his traditional rightist and ultra-Orthodox allies.

“There’s nothing ideological here. He’s really sick of being with these people, who are attacking him every other day,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “He can’t control this government.”

The collapse of the coalition followed a meeting late Monday between Netanyahu and Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, that failed to resolve differences over government spending and a contentious bill enshrining Israel’s status as the Jewish nation-state, a proposed law that critics say would damage the standing of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Some commentators described Netanyahu’s promotion of the bill, which gave precedence to Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic principles, as an effort to rally the prime minister’s right-wing political base while precipitating a confrontation with his centrist rivals.

The prime minister had “decided to drag Israel into unnecessary elections last night,” Lapid told an economic conference Tuesday, accusing Netanyahu of obstructing his budgetary initiatives and proposed housing reforms.

“These elections are not about a particular issue,” Lapid said. “Not about security and not about society.”

Lapid and Netanyahu had been sparring for months over budget appropriations, particularly increases in defense spending. The confrontation sharpened last week, when Yesh Atid said it would vote against the Jewish-state bill.

Livni, who heads another centrist party, Hatnua, also condemned the bill, saying Tuesday that she wouldn’t support “any extremist, ultranationalist, anti-Zionist legislation.”

Netanyahu also had bristled at Lapid’s and Livni’s criticism of a recent move to advance plans for building hundreds of new homes for Jews in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. Lapid has argued that such steps harm Israel’s relations with the United States, which has repeatedly criticized Israeli settlement activity. Livni, who before her firing had been the government’s representative to peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, argued that such moves only make tensions worse.

“Israel is not in an easy situation,” Lapid said Tuesday. “Our relations with the United States have been damaged because of patronizing and at times insulting behavior.”

From the start, Netanyahu’s coalition had been an uneasy alliance dominated by rightist ministers whose policies have increasingly rankled the government’s centrist members.