JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a motion on Wednesday to dissolve the Knesset in a preliminary vote, paving the way for early elections after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to iron out differences with coalition partners.
Israel's government, which took office in early 2013, has been riven by divisions from the beginning over major issues facing the country. On Tuesday, Netanyahu fired two rebellious Cabinet ministers and called for elections, plunging the country into a bitter campaign set to culminate in polls early next year.
Wednesday's vote in the 120-member Knesset, which passed 84-0 with one legislator abstaining, was an initial step. Further votes are expected next week that will officially disband the parliament and usher in new polls.
If the upcoming parliamentary votes pass as expected, the current legislature will have served for one of the shortest periods in the country's history.
The elections are expected to be held on March 17 — two years ahead of schedule — and early polls show Netanyahu's Likud party leading with about 22 seats.
"The coming elections are about one question, who will lead the government amid the huge challenges that Israel faces?" Netanyahu told a Likud party meeting. "The Likud is the only party that should be considered."
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said his center-left Labor party would "do everything to bring change and hope to Israel." Labor, a traditional force in Israeli politics that has lost support in recent years, is poised to pull in 13 seats, according to the early polls.
Netanyahu's fractious center-right Cabinet has been bickering for weeks over the budget, a housing tax break and a bill that would enshrine into law Israel's status as a Jewish state. Rising violence between Palestinians and Israelis has also been an issue, as have the government's Jewish settlement policies in the West Bank.
The friction came to a head on Tuesday with the dismissal of Netanyahu's finance minister, Yair Lapid, a major coalition partner, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu accused the two of levelling unwarranted criticism at him and of orchestrating a "putsch."
The coalition includes Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid, which rose to power with promises of economic relief for Israel's middle class; Livni's Hatnuah, which is focused on reaching peace with the Palestinians; Jewish Home, a hard-line party linked to the West Bank settler movement; and Yisrael Beitenu, a nationalist party that seeks to redraw Israel's borders to rid the country of many Arab citizens.
Netanyahu's own Likud party is divided between more-centrist old timers and a young guard of hard-line ideologues.
The elections would come at a time of growing violence between Palestinians and Israelis and deepening despair over the prospects for peace. Israelis are also concerned about a rising cost of living and a sagging economy.