JERUSALEM - Israel's parliament voted Wednesday to dissolve and hold early elections after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two top ministers, unraveling his governing coalition after 20 months in office.
The bill to disband the Knesset passed the first of three readings and is expected to be made final next week.
Before the vote, lawmakers agreed to hold general elections March 17, two years ahead of schedule.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein welcomed the early date with its short campaign period, saying: "We can't abuse the public. We mustn't drag this out."
Netanyahu and what remains of his cabinet will stay in office until the next government is formed.
On Tuesday, he dismissed Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, accusing them of insubordination. Four other ministers from Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party quit in protest.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's dramatic developments, politicians sharpened their barbs, ushering in a fierce campaign.
Incensed at Netanyahu's move, Livni called the prime minister a coward hiding behind "hysterical words."
The two had clashed over a bill declaring Israel to be a Jewish state. Livni said Netanyahu cared less about the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 British statement of support for a Jewish homeland in the region, than Balfour Street, the location of the prime minister's official residence.
"This is what these elections are really about," Livni said.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu ally, directed his jabs at Lapid, accusing him of ruining the economy.
"You were an excellent television presenter," Steinitz quipped about the popular former anchor. "Go back to doing something you're good at . . . and leave the national economy and security to serious people."
Lapid's response came in a televised address Wednesday in which he accused Netanyahu of being "out of touch" with the public and its economic realities.
Adding a potential complication for Netanyahu is a former ally: Moshe Kahlon, who was the most popular cabinet minister in Netanyahu's previous government, is back with a new centrist party.
Kahlon, who broke with Netanyahu before 2013 legislative elections, announced the new party Wednesday in a speech to university students. "I used to be in a very strong political framework," he said, "but I decided to establish a new framework, and this is for our children." Kahlon gave no details on his political platform.
He has historically taken hard-line positions toward the Palestinians but more recently has expressed support for a territorial compromise that would establish a Palestinian state. However, his agenda has focused much more heavily on economic and cost-of-living issues.
In Israel's parliamentary system, voters cast ballots for a political party rather than for a prime ministerial candidate. On paper, elections are not personal. In practice, however, the vote could become a referendum on Netanyahu.
"He knows this election is about whether he deserves a fourth term," wrote Yossi Verter of Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
After enjoying strong public support during the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip this summer, Netanyahu's approval ratings have dropped sharply. But he is still seen by many as the politician best suited to serve as prime minister.
Netanyahu acknowledged that he was "knowingly undertaking a personal risk" by calling early elections.