Israel’s defence minister has announced his resignation, saying he no longer has faith in the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
The departure of Moshe Ya’alon came after Netanyahu offered the defence job to the hawkish ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman as part of moves to widen his fragile coalition.
Before Ya’alon resigned there had been speculation that Netanyahu planned to offer him the post of foreign minister, one of several cabinet positions occupied by Netanyahu himself.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, said he was greatly saddened by Ya’alon’s departure. “Against the background of recent events, the break from political life he is taking is understandable, and even appropriate, but at the same time represents a great loss to us all,” Rivlin said.
Snap polls suggested Israelis preferred Ya’alon to Lieberman as defence minister by a wide margin. A poll aired by Israel’s Channel 10 television on Thursday found that 51% of Israeli Jews believed Ya’alon to be better suited for the cabinet position, while 27% favoured Lieberman. Two other polls showed similar responses.
Israeli PM asks Avigdor Lieberman to be defence minister in a shock move.
Yaalon’s exit could put a fresh dent in domestic and western confidence in the Netanyahu government.
The Palestinian foreign ministry issued a statement criticising the expected appointment of Lieberman, and declaring that Netanyahu was turning his government into the most extreme administration in Israel’s history.
Ya’alon, a former chief of Israel’s armed forces, had shored up relations with the Pentagon, providing a counterweight to Netanyahu’s policy feuds with Barack Obama over peace talks with the Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear programme.
In a furious social media post, Ya’alon said he had told Netanyahu on Friday that “following his conduct in recent developments and in light of the lack of trust in him, I am resigning from the government and the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] and taking a time out from political life”.
The two had clashed in recent weeks both over Ya’alon’s backing for the embattled Israel Defence Forces deputy chief, Yair Golan, who hadcompared some traits in Israeli society to Europe in the 1930s in a controversial speech, and over Netanyahu’s support for a soldier who killed a Palestinian knife attacker who was severely wounded and posed no threat.
Negotiations are continuing between Netanyahu and Lieberman to bring the latter’s hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party out of opposition and in to government.
Although Netanyahu’s office has said Lieberman would be “pragmatic and moderate”, there has been little evidence of that in his political career to date. Indeed, a key demand of Lieberman – in addition to cabinet seats – is that Netanyahu commit to new legislation to introduce the death penalty for terrorism.
The expected appointment of Lieberman, an outspoken and hawkish rightwinger who has called Israeli Arab lawmakers “traitors”, has drawn widespread criticism, including from Netanyahu supporters such as Benny Begin, a former cabinet minister.
Over several days of high political drama, Netanyahu ditched months-long negotiations with Isaac Herzog, the centrist leader of the opposition, to woo Lieberman.
The stark differences between the two politicians led Israeli commentators to suggest that Netanyahu’s interests were driven by his desire to prolong his time in office rather than any concrete policies.
A deal with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party would give Netanyahu’s government control over 67 of parliament’s 120 seats, up from the current razor-thin majority of 61.