By Ilene Prusher @ileneprusher
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two of his most prominent ministers on Tuesday evening and called for new elections, underscoring his interest in establishing a right-wing government more loyal to his agenda.
The three-term premier announced at a press conference Tuesday that he was ousting Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, accusing them of openly rebelling against him and preventing him from governing the country. Livni joined Netanyahu’s government on the condition that he allow her to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, and Lapid had promised to take on socioeconomic reforms and Israel’s housing crisis.
“You can call it a putsch, and like this you can’t govern and can’t run a country,” Netanyahu said in a prime-time press conference. “I will not agree to a situation in which ministers attack the government from within.” Speaking as if he was simultaneously launching a new campaign, he urged voters to give him a “bigger ruling party” – the right-wing Likud – adding, “if you want a government of the center-right and right, then I ask to give you your vote to us.”
Over the past week, Israeli media had begun to predict that the bad blood inside Netanyahu’s coalition government had reached toxic new levels, and that it has pushed the hawkish leader to opt for new elections. The most recent bone of contention was a plan on the part of Lapid and his Yesh Atid party to cancel a tax on apartment purchases for first-time home buyers as a way to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis that Lapid had pledged to solve.
But Netanyahu decided to block that with little explanation, as well as a health-care reform plan, which in turn led Lapid to threaten to bolt the coalition. In his speech, Netanyahu condemned Livni for daring to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when she had been told not to, highlighting their differences over the failure of the peace talks in April.
The most severe division, however, was over the question of Israel’s status – or not—as a Jewish nation. Together, Lapid and Livni were among the foremost opponents to the passage by Netanyahu’s cabinet of an initial draft of a controversial bill declaring Israel a nation state. Netanyahu says he is dedicated to passing some version of this legislation so as to cement Israel’s status as a Jewish state by law, which he argues is necessary for the country’s survival. Critics say this would create an undemocratic two-tier system which makes Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities inferior citizens.
“You could say that it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at the IDC Herzliya, a university near Tel Aviv, tells TIME. “I take him at his word. He can’t really govern, he can’t really get legislation passed. He is not a leader right now, in that he can’t run the country as he would like to. Netanyahu didn’t want this government in the first place, and he prefers what he calls, his ‘natural allies.’”