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Netanyahu fires Lapid and Livni, moving Israel closer to early elections

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, Dec. 1, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, Dec. 1, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — For the second time in about two years, Israel appears to be headed toward elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firing Tuesday of two key Cabinet ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, increased the likelihood of a government collapse.

“The people of Israel placed the responsibility on me, but with this coalition it is impossible to govern the country as its citizens expect,” Netanyahu said Monday after a reportedly acrimonious meeting with Lapid, the finance minister who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party. “If the unprecedented conduct from some of the ministers continues, there will be no escaping going to the polls.”

Both Lapid and Livni, the justice minister and head of the center-left Hatnua party, have criticized Netanyahu publicly in recent days as long-simmering political rivalries boiled over after the Cabinet approved a controversial bill defining Israel as a Jewish state.

Lapid, whose party is the largest in the government coalition, castigated the prime minister Tuesday for playing politics instead of passing sensible legislation, including next year’s state budget.

“These elections are not about a particular issue — not about security and not about society — but an election between those who came to work and those who came to block everything,” Lapid said in a speech. “We came to work. That’s all we wanted, that’s all we still want.”

The firings of Lapid and Livni were announced Tuesday evening.

The Knesset is likely to approve new elections in the coming days, leading to a national vote in March or April. Opposition parties already have proposed bills to dissolve the Knesset. The last national elections were held in January 2013. Elections are scheduled now for November 2017.

A poll conducted last week by the Dialog Institute suggested that early elections would hurt Yesh Atid and benefit Likud, which is led by Netanyahu. Yesh Atid would drop from 19 Knesset seats to 11, while Hatnua would slip from six seats to four, according to the survey. Likud would win the election with 24 seats, up from its current 18, the survey showed, but only 35 percent of respondents said Netanyahu is fit to be prime minister.

Coalition crises like these sometimes have been averted at the last minute. In May 2012, a vote to dissolve the Knesset was rendered irrelevant after Netanyahu’s Likud joined with the centrist Kadima party in a short-lived unity government.

A similar deal is less likely this time. The current coalition, which includes parties ranging from the far right to center left, was formed as a team of rivals in March. The election that formed it in January 2013 saw the rise of two major new parties: Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the pro-settlement Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett.

Since then, coalition partners have fought over everything from peace talks to the economy to religious issues. Rifts began to widen after this summer’s war in Gaza, with Bennett blaming Netanyahu for stopping the war early and Lapid accusing the prime minister of bringing relations with the United States to crisis.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at a press conference at Tel Aviv Municipality's Youth House, Nov. 20, 2014. (Flash90)

The fight that may be the last straw for this coalition is over the so-called nation-state law, a controversial bill that would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Netanyahu has trumpeted the measure as a necessary defense of Israel’s Jewish character, while Lapid and Livni warn that it would erode Israeli democracy.

“There’s no left and right when it comes to the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence and our deep identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” Livni wrote on Facebook last week. “There’s one large camp — the Zionist camp — that’s fighting against the Tea Party of Israeli politics.”

Isaac Herzog, who heads the left-wing Labor party, wrote Tuesday on Facebook that in new elections, his party would “bring hope and a new reality to the citizens of Israel.”

According to the Dialog poll, Jewish Home would see its Knesset representation rise from 12 to 16 seats in new elections, but Bennett first needs to win a party primary scheduled for next month. Jewish Home is itself a coalition of several religious Zionist factions, and Bennett has drawn opposition from more conservative rivals.

Netanyahu faces a similar challenge within Likud, which also is slated to hold a primary in January. His chief rival in the party is Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister who was fired after he publicly criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza war.

Danon does not believe Israel should facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state and says Israel should respond more aggressively to terrorism. On Monday, Danon closed ranks with the prime minister, directing his vitriol at Lapid.

“It is unfortunate that the amateurish antics of Yair Lapid are dragging Israel to unnecessary, and expensive, early elections,” Danon said in a statement. “After the Likud is victorious at the ballot box, we must be sure not to repeat mistakes of the past and form the next coalition government with loyal and like-minded parties that are interested in serving as true partners in leading our great country.”