JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister fired two senior Cabinet ministers from his divided government Tuesday and said he would call early elections, plunging the country toward a heated campaign more than two years ahead of schedule.
The announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected the deep differences in his Cabinet over a host of issues, ranging from a budget battle to a contentious bill defining Israel as “the Jewish state.” A last-ditch attempt to repair the rifts failed late Monday.
In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said he ordered the dismissals of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. The pair, who head separate centrist parties, have emerged as his leading critics in recent weeks.
“I will not tolerate an opposition within the government any more. I will not tolerate ministers attacking government policy from within the government,” the statement quoted Netanyahu as saying.
It said he would call for dissolving the parliament as soon as possible and seek a “clear mandate” from the public to lead the nation.
Netanyahu planned a nationwide address later Tuesday.
The current government took office in early 2013 and has been riven by divisions.
The coalition includes Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, which rose to power with promises of economic relief for Israel’s middle class; Livni’s Hatnuah, which is focused on reaching peace with the Palestinians; Jewish Home, a hard-line party linked to the West Bank settler movement; and Yisrael Beitenu, a nationalist party that seeks to redraw Israel’s borders to rid the country of many Arab citizens. Netanyahu’s own Likud party is divided between more centrist old timers and a young guard of hard-line ideologues.
In its short time in office, the government has squabbled over numerous issues, including the budget, the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks, Jewish settlement construction and how to confront a wave of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem.
The differences escalated last week when Netanyahu pushed a piece of legislation defining Israel as “the Jewish state.” Although its 1948 Declaration of Independence already does this, Netanyahu says the country must enshrine this at the constitutional level to send a message to the country’s enemies.
Critics say the wording that Netanyahu favours would undermine Israel’s democratic character and harm the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. Both Lapid and Livni harshly condemned the legislation.
The government waged a fierce 50-day war against militants in the Gaza Strip over the summer. Its attempts to pursue peace with the Palestinians ended in failure last spring.
Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Netanyahu was pushing for elections “based on his extreme right and racist ideology.”
Netanyahu fired Lapid a day after a late-night meeting meant to patch up their differences over the budget ended in failure.
Netanyahu issued a statement just moments after the meeting ended that laid out a series of tough conditions for Lapid. The hasty move drew accusations from Lapid that the meeting had been a charade and its outcome preplanned.
“The firing of ministers is an act of cowardice and loss of control,” Lapid said after his dismissal. “We are sad to see that the prime minister has chosen to act without consideration for the national interest and to drag Israel to unnecessary elections.”
Meir Sheetrit, a lawmaker from Livni’s Hatnua party, said earlier Tuesday that the government had stopped functioning and he had “no doubt” there would be new elections, probably next March.
Sheetrit said the only way to unseat Netanyahu would be for centrist parties to join forces and present a unified alternative.
“This is the only chance to give people hope that they can really change this government,” he said.