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Netanyahu fires Ministers and calls for elections

In a decisive move after days of intense political bickering, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel fired his centrist finance and justice ministers on Tuesday and called for the dissolution of Parliament and early elections.

“I will no longer tolerate opposition from within the government,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a televised news conference that signaled the opening of his re-election campaign.

Mr. Netanyahu has essentially accused Yair Lapid, the finance minister, and Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, of making the country ungovernable with their frequent public criticism of his policies in recent weeks.

With the firings, the occasional quarreling and simmering tensions that have characterized the 20-month-old coalition government broke into an all-out shouting match, as Mr. Netanyahu, seeking to move the nation toward the right, used harsh language to criticize his rivals, and they responded in kind.

The divide between Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud Party, and the centrist parties in the government widened after the breakdown of American-brokered peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the spring. In addition, Ms. Livni and Mr. Lapid have denounced Mr. Netanyahu’s announcements of settlement construction plans, blaming him for inviting international condemnation.

Lately, centrists have clashed with Mr. Netanyahu over his backing of a hard-line version of a nationality bill emphasizing Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic principles. And Mr. Netanyahu began sparring with Mr. Lapid over economic policies.

In a blistering speech at an energy conference on Tuesday, Mr. Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, a major coalition member, accused Mr. Netanyahu of forcing “unnecessary elections” and castigated him for the damage to Israel’s relations with the United States “because of patronizing and at times insulting behavior.”

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

He and Ms. Livni, the leader of the smaller Hatnua party, described their firings as an act of cowardice.

The early elections and the heated disputes that led to the fall of the government threaten to disrupt the country yet again in a year in which it fought a 50-day war with the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip; in which Secretary of State John Kerry failed in his efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; and in which Israel has been forced to confront a new surge of deadly violence, including the murders of four Israelis in a synagogue.

Asked about the Israeli shake-up at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mr. Kerry said he hoped that the new elections would “produce the possibility of a government that can negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, and obviously, the differences in the region.”

Israel’s march toward early elections set out last week with a row over the nationality bill. This week, it was fueled by a clash over proposed housing changes and the state budget.

But Israeli political analysts said the call for elections was more about Mr. Netanyahu’s need for a more malleable coalition than about disagreements over any particular issue. Mr. Netanyahu, they said, had simply had enough of his fractious coalition partners and wanted a more manageable government made up of rightist allies and the ultra-Orthodox parties he has long considered his natural partners.

“It is not about this law or that,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a former politician and a public opinion and national security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Noting that there was room for compromise on the nationality bill and that Mr. Netanyahu first voted for the housing bill, he said the prime minister appeared to have used these issues to force a coalition crisis.

“This was Netanyahu’s call and his alone,” Mr. Ben Meir said.

Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said: “There is no ideology involved. For now, it is pure politics. He is just tired of these people, and he assumes that elections will take them down more than a peg.”

A bill for the dissolution of Parliament could be brought for a vote in the coming week. Elections would then be scheduled for March at the earliest.

The long-simmering tensions in the governing coalition, which was made up of five rightist and centrist parties, crystallized into a bitter rivalry between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lapid.

A Monday night meeting between the two was billed as a last chance to resolve differences. But barely minutes after Mr. Lapid left the room, Mr. Netanyahu’s office provided Israeli political reporters with a list of five conditions that the prime minister had presented to the finance minister in an ultimatum that Mr. Lapid was bound to refuse.

The list included a demand that Mr. Lapid stop criticizing Mr. Netanyahu for his policies and his relations with the United States, support a version of the nationality bill yet to be presented by Mr. Netanyahu, accept changes to a budget that had been agreed upon, and freeze a bill that would exempt young couples from paying the value-added tax when buying a first home — Mr. Lapid’s flagship initiative.

Ms. Livni has also been sharply critical of Mr. Netanyahu, most recently for promoting the hard-line version of the nationality bill.

Some analysts said the seeds of the crisis had been laid from the outset after the 2013 elections, when Mr. Netanyahu was forced to form a coalition he did not really want. His options were curtailed by an unexpected alliance between two political newcomers who did surprisingly well in the ballot: Mr. Lapid, a former television talk show host, whose party won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, which won 12 seats.

Mr. Netanyahu could not form a government without them. They banded together and conditioned their participation on the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett are no longer in an alliance.

In Israel’s fractured, largely sectoral political scene, no single party ever wins enough votes for a parliamentary majority, necessitating coalitions. And although it is not unusual for diverse partners to be in a coalition, this will be the first time in more than five decades that a Parliament has been dissolved less than two years after it was elected.

The government breakdown comes at a time of rising violence, when there is no peace process with the Palestinians and many Israelis are struggling financially and worrying about their personal security. Many here say they view new elections as a costly sign of instability.

“Israel is entering these elections at a low point,” Nahum Barnea, a prominent political columnist, wrote in the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Tuesday. “If you were to ask the Israelis which party they intend to vote for, many of them would reply that they have no intention of voting at all.”

Source: The New York Times

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