His eyes were bloodshot, his tone argumentative, desperate even.

But as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in front of the cameras Wednesday night, he was determined to pull the plug on his restive coalition government.

The current group was unworkable, he said, and he needed an election — and a stronger result for his centre-right party, Likud — in order to do a better job.

So Israeli voters will now go to the polls on March 17, two years ahead of schedule.

Just minutes earlier, he had fired two key cabinet ministers, the finance minister, Yair Lapid, leader of the large centrist Yesh Atid party, and the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Hatnuah party.

Bad enough that they were publicly criticizing his policies, said Netanyahu. In his TV address, he accused them of plotting a coup.


An angry Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his finance and justice ministers on Tuesday, signalling the break-up of his bickering coalition and opening the way for early national elections in Israel in March. (Reuters)

That charge was dismissed, even ridiculed by many commentators, one of whom called Netanyahu's rush to the polls "a paranoid gamble."

Israeli newspapers, in fact, are full of derision for the late-night sackings and election call.

"What the Israeli public saw yesterday was a haunted, bitter and petty prime minister who was trying to pin his government's failure on his partners, as if he had no responsibility for what has happened here in the past two years," writes Sima Kadmon, senior political commentator for the largest daily newspaper in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth

David Horowitz, editor of the English-language Times of Israel, says "Israeli voters might be forgiven for thinking their leaders are more interested in power for power's sake than in the effective governance of the nation in a region fraught with dangers. Israeli voters would be correct."

Tense times

Indeed, with all that's happened in and around Israel since the last election, government policies will obviously be the focus of this next campaign.

The country has fought a 50-day war in Gaza, one that left fighters and civilians dead on both sides.

Tension is high in Jerusalem, after deadly attacks by Palestinians shocked Israelis and left the government scrambling to prevent a third intifada, or uprising, in the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem.

The Netanyahu government has been trying to contain feelings of fear among Jewish Israelis, and of hopelessness among Palestinians, caused by the failure of peace negotiations.

Then nearby wars in Syria and Iraq, along with unrest in Egypt and Lebanon, have put Israel's borders on high alert. Meanwhile, Israelis complain of the high cost of living and unaffordable housing.

But while cabinet ministers did have arguments over many of these issues — and most recently over a Netanyahu-backed law to re-declare Israel a "Jewish state" — it wasn't a policy crisis that killed this government.

Rather, it was a dysfunctional coalition in which Netanyahu had trouble reconciling centrist views with those of his right-wing allies.

He's had coalition governments before, but always seemed much more comfortable managing the interests of right-wing nationalists like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or the leader of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett.

Still, if today's opinion polls are any indication (and much may change in the next three months), the next Knesset may not look that different from the present one.


Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, may see his party's seat count rise in March, if current polls are correct. (REUTERS)

Two different media surveys published this morning suggest Netanyahu can't expect his party to get many more seats than it has now. It may even lose support if he's blamed for an unnecessary election.

Other medium-sized parties, like Lapid's Yesh Atid and the center-left Labor party could lose some seats. But if anything, it looks as if the new Knesset could be even more fragmented than the current one.

It could also drift further to the right.

One party that's predicted to made gains is Bennett's Jewish Home, whose support could see it rise from its current 12 seats in the Knesset to 17 or more, according to some polls.

During the Gaza war, Bennett consistently criticized Netanyahu for not being tough enough on Palestinians.

Recently, he said Israel should forget about ever withdrawing from the occupied West Bank or allowing a Palestinian state to be formed.

His strongest base is among Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but he has attracted support throughout Israel.

One other thing that seems quite likely, even now, is that Netanyahu will remain prime minister. There just isn't anyone else people can imagine emerging.

He obviously enjoys that role. What he might not enjoy is having to run another coalition government that promises to be just as fractious.