Defense Minister Ehud Barak struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday as a verbal feud between the two political allies escalated, with Barak saying he had strengthened ties with the US — and implying that Netanyahu damaged them.

The tensions between the two most influential figures in Israel’s government are generally seen as a sign that the dissolution of the government, and early elections, are imminent.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu criticized Barak over a recent visit to Washington, DC, in which the defense minister met with US officials, including Chicago mayor and former US President Barack Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel.

Netanyahu said Barak “went to the US to play the role of the moderate ‘savior,’ reconciling the sides” over the best way to grapple with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, according to a report on Channel 2 TV.

Ties between Netanyahu and the White House have been rocky since Netanyahu’s election and have notably worsened over the Iran crisis in recent months.

Netanyahu’s statement opened a rift between the two leaders, who have long seemed to be in lockstep over domestic and foreign affairs. The spat has increased speculation that Netanyahu plans to dissolve parliament and call early elections for February or March 2013.

On Wednesday, Barak defended his record in a statement released by his office. The statement said Barak worked both in Israel and in the US to represent the government’s position, secure American support for Israel’s security and “reduce tension” between the sides — an apparent dig at Netanyahu’s management of Israel’s most important strategic relationship.

Netanyahu made his statement about Barak during a meeting with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz at which they discussed passing a budget with sweeping austerity measures or calling early elections. According to press reports, Steinitz warned Netanyahu that Barak would try to stymie their efforts and push for elections.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday morning, Cabinet minister Shalom Simhon, a Barak associate from the defense minister’s small Independence party, attacked Steinitz, calling him Netanyahu’s “poodle.”

“I wouldn’t buy a used car from him,” Simhon said.

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On accused both Barak and Netanyahu of staging the tensions between them as a ploy to garner centrist votes in the next elections. In this scenario, Barak will win centrist votes by breaking to the left and seeming to oppose Netanyahu, and then join a new hard-line coalition headed by Netanyahu when the polls close.

After the elections, “Barak will fall back into Netanyahu’s arms,” she said.

Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.