Dec 2, 2014 11:39 AM

Israeli leader fires key Cabinet ministers

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) Israel's prime minister has fired two senior Cabinet ministers, setting the stage for an expected announcement of early elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Tuesday he had ordered the dismissals of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

The coalition government has been divided over key issues in recent weeks, and Lapid and Livni have emerged as fierce critics of the prime minister.

Netanyahu planned a nationwide address later Tuesday.

With his coalition in tatters, Netanyahu is expected to order new elections, more than two years ahead of schedule.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Israel appeared headed toward early elections Tuesday after a highly anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a key coalition partner failed to iron out their differences.

Two members of the centrist Yesh Atid party currently a member of Netanyahu's coalition warned the vote would come at a particularly difficult time. Israeli media said the most likely date for any early election would be sometime in March.

The late Monday meeting between Netanyahu and Yesh Atid's leader Yair Lapid followed weeks of sparring between the sides over budget provisions, including an increase for the Ministry of Defense, and Yesh Atid's opposition to the current version of a contentious bill that would enshrine Israel's status as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu has "decided to take Israel to unnecessary elections last night," Lapid told an economic conference on Tuesday, adding that despite Israel's 50-day war with Hamas militants over the summer, its problems with a highly militarized Gaza Strip still remain.

Lapid has also said he believes that Netanyahu has veered too far to the right by pushing Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, and failing to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

"Netanyahu has chosen to go to elections when the situation is particularly difficult," said Yesh Atid's Yaacov Peri, the science minister. "There is a crisis with the United States and the condition of the middle class is deteriorating."

However, Netanyahu can still fill out the remainder of his two-year term even without the support of Yesh Atid, by bringing ultra-orthodox parties into his government.

But those parties have so far shown no willingness to join him, apparently preferring the alternative of an early poll.

Chairman Danny Danon of Netanyahu's Likud party blamed "the amateurish antics of Yair Lapid" for "dragging Israel to an unnecessary, and expensive, early election."

"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," he said.

That suggests a far-right coalition, with a major emphasis on Jewish settlement and Jewish-oriented legislation.


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