Middle East

Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu seeks early general election

Media captionBenjamin Netanyahu said he wanted to "regain the people's trust"

Israel's prime minister has sacked his finance and justice ministers and declared he wants parliament dissolved, triggering an early general election.

Benjamin Netanyahu said Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni had "harshly attacked" both himself and the coalition government.

Mr Netanyahu explained that he wanted an election two years early to win "a clear mandate to lead Israel".

Disagreements over a series of economic and political policies have strained relations within the coalition.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu said it was "impossible" to lead the government with the current coalition, describing Ms Livni and Mr Lapid's activities as a "putsch".

"I will not tolerate an opposition within the government anymore," he said.

"I will not tolerate ministers attacking government policy from within the government, attacking its leader, motivated by political interests, and being irresponsible at a national level."

Image caption Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said the elections were "unnecessary"

Analysis: Kevin Connolly, BBC News, Jerusalem

Israeli voters are no strangers to transitory coalition administrations - the current government is the 32nd they've seen in the 67 years since the foundation of the state.

But it is almost certainly destined to be one of the shortest-lived; it is only two years since the last parliamentary elections here.

The last few weeks have seen a sharp rise in tensions between key partners in the current right-of-centre coalition.

Mr Netanyahu is thought to regard Mr Lapid as being too ambitious for comfort.

He may be hoping to return to power at the head of a re-formulated coalition in which the finance minister's secular party would be replaced with a religious block representing the interest of ultra-orthodox Jews.


Image caption Ms Livni reportedly accused the prime minister of cowardice in his sacking of her

'Act of cowardice'

Mr Netanyahu's comments come after talks with Mr Lapid - who leads Yesh Atid, the centrist party that is the second largest in the governing coalition - ended without an agreement on Monday night.

Mr Netanyahu and his ministers have disagreed about the content of a bill designed to strengthen the Jewish nature of the Israeli state and over a proposed tax break for first-time home buyers, which Mr Lapid regards as his signature issue.

Yesh Atid called Netanyahu's decision to fire the two "an act of cowardice and loss of control".

Mr Lapid told an economic conference that the prime minister had "decided to take Israel to unnecessary elections" and accused him of damaging Israel's relations with the United States "because of patronising and at times insulting behaviour".

Ms Livni, who leads the centrist Hatnua party, has also been a critic of the Jewish state bill.

As speculation about an election mounted, Ms Livni accused Mr Netanyahu of "extremism, provocativeness and paranoia".

The government did not know how to fight terrorism while also "upholding freedom and Zionism", she added.

Image caption Mr Netanyahu and his ministers disagreed about strengthening the Jewish nature of the Israeli state

After Mr Netanyahu's news conference, Ms Livni reportedly accused the prime minister of cowardice in his sacking of her, saying that he "didn't even dare to look me in the eye to fire me", and she denied there was a "putsch" against him.

Polls

Israeli MPs are expected to vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament on Wednesday.

Under Israeli electoral law, voting would probably take place in mid-March if the Knesset were to be dissolved this week.

Television polls have predicted Mr Netanyahu will again be returned as prime minister in new elections.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said opinion polls indicated the next Israeli government might be "more right wing and extreme", the Associated Press reported. He said this could bolster international support for the Palestinian cause.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said he would not comment on Israeli politics.

But he said he hoped for a government that could "negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians".

The breakdown of the Israeli coalition government comes amid worsening relations with the Palestinians, following this summer's Gaza conflict and growing unrest in Jerusalem.

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