JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Tuesday for early elections as he fired two key ministers in his coalition for opposing government policy.
The sackings were the latest move in a political crisis that will come to a head on Wednesday when lawmakers vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, or Knesset.
That would set the stage for a vote expected in March, in what would be Israel's second general election in just over two years.
"In the current state of affairs, I can't lead the country," Netanyahu said at a news conference.
"This government, since its inception, has been adversarial," he said, blaming Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni whom he fired of "acting against the government from within".
"In a word - it's called a putsch," he said of their conduct, accusing them of trying to form an alternative government with ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition.
Netanyahu said he was formulating a law to dissolve the parliament "as soon as possible" ahead of new elections. "Frequent elections are not a good thing, but a government with no governance and ministers acting against it from within is much worse," he said in televised remarks.
Lapid's Yesh Atid party called Netanyahu's decision to fire the two "an act of cowardice and loss of control," with Livni saying the election would be a choice between Netanyahu's "extremism" and her moderate "Zionism".
The four other Yesh Atid ministers were to resign later Tuesday, the party said.
Cracks in Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition emerged over the 2015 budget and a contentious bill aimed at enshrining Israel's status as the Jewish state in law, a move critics say could harm its Arab minority.
The bill was strongly opposed by both Lapid and Livni, who chairs HaTnuah, also centrist. The two parties account for 25 of the coalition's 68 seats. The alliance was pieced together after a January 2013 election, with the next poll theoretically not due until November 2017.
To pass, the vote on dissolving parliament will need an absolute majority within the 120-member Knesset, requiring support from members of the ruling coalition.
Netanyahu likely to return
Sources in Netanyahu's Likud party told AFP that members of the coalition were likely to support the bill. The political tensions peaked on Monday after Netanyahu-Lapid talks aimed at heading off the crisis collapsed.
Netanyahu had demanded Lapid accede to five demands for the government to continue - including agreement to freeze his own flagship initiative for zero per cent value-added tax on first home purchases, and to support the Jewish state bill.
Lapid refused, accusing Netanyahu of "irresponsibly" pursuing personal interests over those of the public, saying he "decided to take Israel to unnecessary elections".
Should the right chalk up gains in a new election, it would diminish even further the chances of resuming dialogue with the Palestinians after the collapse of US-led peace talks in April.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday he hoped whatever future government formed would be able to "negotiate and move towards resolving differences between Israelis and Palestinians".
The political comes amid increasing tensions with the Palestinians, with a growing wave of unrest and deadly "lone wolf" attacks. With peace talks firmly off the agenda, Israel has seen a steady slide to the right.
And as chatter has grown about the possibility of early elections, Netanyahu has taken an increasingly hardline stance, throwing his weight behind controversial rightwing initiatives, notably the Jewish state bill.
Critics say that law, which has yet to be put to a vote, would come at the expense of democracy and would institutionalise discrimination against minorities.
Analysts say Netanyahu's support for the bill is a gesture to Likud hardliners ahead of party primaries in January.
In the last election, Likud ran on a joint ticket with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, securing a narrow victory of 31 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 19. But the alliance was dismantled this year, leaving Likud with just 18 seats and Yesh Atid the largest party.
A poll on Channel 2 television predicted Likud would receive 22 seats, making Netanyahu the likely candidate to head the next government, while Yesh Atid plummeted to nine seats.