JERUSALEM – Israel appeared to be 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.
The late Monday meeting between Netanyahu and centrist Yesh Atid party 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.
Together with another centrist member of Netanyahu's coalition, Lapid believes that Netanyahu has veered too far to the right in 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."
Peri said that up until Monday night's meeting he wasn't sure that elections were imminent, but that meeting convinced him Netanyahu's coalition was doomed.
"I think we're going to elections," he said.
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.
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.
If early elections are held, the most likely date would be sometime in March, according to Israeli media.