Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week said he was “taking a risk” by firing dissenting ministers, dissolving parliament and calling early elections after government infighting became “open conflict”.
The ballot box gamble, slated for 17 March, follows a dramatic 24 hours in which late-night talks were held, ultimatums issued and ignored, ministers fired and blame assigned.
Leading a wave of criticism against the PM were Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, sacked as justice minister and finance minister on Tuesday, after Netanyahu accused them of turning on him.
He said: “Ministers Lapid and Livni have harshly attacked the government I’m heading. I won’t tolerate any more opposition within the government. I won’t tolerate ministers attacking the government’s policies and its leader.”
Both Livni and Lapid have been at odds with the cabinet’s right-wingers over the contentious ‘Jewish nationhood’ bill, which critics say will further entrench discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish minority.
Relations broke down completely on Monday night, when last-ditch budget talks ended in acrimony. Lapid sought to eliminate VAT on first-home purchases but Netanyahu balked at the cost, instead ordering billions of shekels be released for IDF projects, including the army’s move south. Lapid refused, and within hours he was dismissed, together with Livni.
“Firing ministers is an act of cowardice and loss of control,” said an angry Lapid, who leads parliament’s second largest party Yesh Atid. He said Netanyahu had “failed in his management of the country” and acted “without consideration for the national interest,” adding “unnecessary elections will harm the economy and Israeli society”.
Livni joined in, saying the prime minister was showing signs of “extremism, provocativeness and paranoia”. She added: “The truth behind the hysterical talk is that we have a prime minister who is afraid… of his ministers and of the outside world.”
But some analysts say Netanyahu engineered the split and precipitated the election, having judged the mood of the country. While last year’s election was primarily fought on economic grounds, giving Yesh Atid 19 seats, war in Gaza and terrorism in East Jerusalem mean security and defence – Netanyahu’s forte – could top of the agenda this time round.
A survey by Channel 2 this week seemed to confirm these thoughts, with Netanyahu’s Likud party predicted at an enhanced 22 seats, with right-wing ally Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party growing to 17 seats.
If these numbers were realised, a combination with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties would therefore deliver one of Israel’s most right-wing governments on record, something Lapid alluded to when he accused Netanyahu of a “a surrender to the ultra-orthodox parties, the powerful central committee of the Likud and outside lobby groups”.
“Netanyahu knows he is doing better in the polls right now than his rivals,” said David Harris, director at The Israel Project. “It’s too early to predict, but Israeli pollsters and pundits reckon he will be returned as prime minister.”
Others say change is needed. “What started as a coalition promising ‘new politics’ has deteriorated rapidly into an unmanageable cluster of parties in open conflict,” says Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Israel is desperately in need of structural reforms that will make the next prime minister capable of governing successfully.”
By Wednesday, talk of alliances was rife, among Arab parties as well as a centre-left coalition comprising Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Isaac Herzog’s Labor party, Livni’s Hatnua as well as the left-wing Meretz. Together they hold 46 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
“The elections are not over zero VAT, but about whether there will be a Zionist or extremist country here,” said Livni. “Can the centre camp present a realistic alternative for replacing the government in Israel? For this to happen, we need all the forces to unite and present such an alternative.”