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Israeli Defense Minister Quits, Clears Way for Controversial Lieberman

  • Joshua Brilliant

Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 20, 2016.

Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 20, 2016.

Israel’s popular defense minister Moshe Yaalon resigned Friday, averting the need for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove him from the Cabinet to clear the way for one of the country's more controversial politicians, Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman has a reputation for inflammatory comments, and takes a hawkish stand towards the Palestinians. He has called for Israeli forces to re-occupy the Gaza Strip, supports action to undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and has defended a soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian.

If Lieberman's six-seat Yisrael Beiteinu party joins the ruling coalition, it will become the most right-wing in Israel's history. However, some observers say that Liberman, who at various times served as minister of infrastructure, transportation, strategic and foreign affairs, is a pragmatist who could change his mind when facing realities.

Announcing his resignation from the government and parliament in a posting on Facebook, Yaalon said: "I informed the [prime minister] that after his conduct and recent developments, and given the lack of faith in him, I am resigning from the government and parliament and taking a break from political life."

Yaalon's Knesset seat will go to Yehuda Glick who has been struggling to enhance the Jewish presence on Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. Temple Mount also is sacred to Muslims, most of whom see the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on that hill in Jerusalem's Old City as ranking just after Mecca and Medina in religious significance.

Discussions within the coalition about bringing in Lieberman's Yisrael Beteinu party, and the appointment of a new defense minister, could produce results during the coming week, but the political debate already is intensifying.

FILE - Israel's head of Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman in a Feb. 23, 2015 photo.

FILE - Israel's head of Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman in a Feb. 23, 2015 photo.

Controversial Lieberman

In a recent interview, Lieberman said that if he were defense minister he would issue an ultimatum to Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas, giving him 48 hours “to return the bodies [of two soldiers seized in 2014] and the [two] civilians [who crossed the lines], or you are dead. Simply reserve a spot for yourself in the nearest cemetery.”

In March, Lieberman showed up at a military court where a soldier, Sergeant El’or Azaria, faced murder charges for killing a Palestinian who had stabbed a soldier. The Palestinian, who was wounded during the incident in Hebron, lay on the road for 11 minutes before Azaria fired. Lieberman said the soldier never should have faced criminal charges.

The noted Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that Liberman has “no restraints,” and unless he realizes the dangers and the responsibilities of his office, “we’re in trouble.”

Some right-wingers who criticized Defense Minister Yaalon's cautious handling of security affairs said they were happy to see him leave the Cabinet, but a former head of the National Security Council, Giora Eiland, said Yaalon handled problems involving Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza in a way that “enabled us to go on with our normal lives,” without further Palestinian unrest.

In a scathing editorial criticizing the prime minister, the Haaretz newspaper wrote Thursday that “Netanyahu has demonstrated that he is prepared to drag the country into a potentially disastrous military adventure, to remove all moral constraints and to encourage blatant racism for the sole purpose of staying in power.”

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