JERUSALEM — Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's hard-line defense minister, stepped down from his post on Wednesday after the government agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas to end two days of clashes in Gaza, in a surprise move that could prompt early ...
Avigdor Lieberman, center, visiting a crossing with the Gaza Strip in July. It was not immediately clear on Wednesday who would replace him.CreditCreditAmir Cohen/Reuters
Nov. 14, 2018
JERUSALEM — Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hard-line defense minister, stepped down from his post on Wednesday after the government agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas to end two days of cross-border clashes, in a surprise move that could prompt early elections.
The decision by Mr. Lieberman to step down, and to withdraw his hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, will decrease the number of seats held by the government from 66 to a precarious 61 in the 120-seat Parliament.
The battle to replace him could precipitate the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu government as the prime minister, whose calling card has been national security, faces increasing criticism from his right-wing rivals who say he was too quick to agree to the cease-fire.
The political crisis began with a covert Israeli intelligence operation in Gaza on Sunday that went awry and spiraled into the fiercest round of fighting since the last Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
It was not immediately clear who would replace Mr. Lieberman as defense minister after the resignation takes effect on Friday.
Naftali Bennett, the education minister who is a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party and who frequently espouses bellicose positions, is demanding the defense job. Mr. Netanyahu will not be eager to give it to him, Israeli political analysts said.
But a legislator from Mr. Bennett’s party, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, said that if Mr. Bennett was not appointed defense minister, then his party, Jewish Home, would also pull out of the coalition, a move that would bring down the government.
Mr. Netanyahu — who is plagued by corruption investigations and facing possible bribery charges — also could take on the role, at least temporarily. But critics said he ought to quickly find an alternative since he already has a second job as the country’s foreign minister. He also nominally serves as minister of health.
Mr. Netanyahu held consultations on Wednesday with the remaining coalition party heads in an effort to stabilize his government.
Various coalition partners — including Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, Mr. Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, and Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home — are vying for support from the same right-wing electorate.
Mr. Lieberman’s announcement, made at a news conference in Parliament, came a day after the right-wing government agreed to the cease-fire with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, ending the short but intense outburst of cross-border violence.
In Gaza, there were celebrations about what the Palestinians viewed as a rare victory over Israel.
Many Israelis, including commentators considered close to Mr. Netanyahu and residents of the south who had been under heavy barrages of rocket fire, assailed the government for what they called a humiliating surrender after militant groups fired some 460 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes against 160 targets in Gaza.
Explaining the timing of his resignation and appealing to his right-wing constituency, Mr. Lieberman said he considered the cease-fire to be a “capitulation to terror.” He also listed a number of other recent policy decisions with which he disagreed.
“What we are doing now as a state is buying short-term quiet at the price of serious damage to national long-term security,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Mr. Netanyahu apparently preferred a speedy cease-fire over the alternative — a stronger and more sustained Israeli bombing campaign, the likelihood of longer-range rockets from Gaza reaching further into Israel’s densely populated coastal plain and the risk of sliding into an unwanted, full-scale conflict.
Just before the latest spasm of violence broke out, he said he was doing everything he could to avoid what he called an “unnecessary war” that would achieve little in the long run.
In his announcement, Mr. Lieberman also called for early elections, saying the lack of clarity over the country’s security policy must be brought to an end.
“I very much hope that by Sunday, negotiations between the parties will reach an agreed date for elections,” he said.
It takes at least three months to prepare for elections in Israel. The current government’s four-year term is scheduled to run out a year from now.
Despite the historical fragility of Israeli coalitions, until now Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition partners have not been eager to bring down the most right-wing and religious government Israel has known.
Mr. Lieberman has outflanked Mr. Netanyahu from the right on the issue of national security.
Mr. Netanyahu defended his acceptance of the cease-fire by saying Hamas had begged for it. He also hinted at other justifications and plans but said he could not elaborate for security reasons.
“I hear the voices of the residents of the south,” he said, speaking at a state memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. “Believe me, they are precious to me, their words penetrate my heart.”
“But together with the heads of the security forces,” he said, “I see the overall picture of Israel’s security, which I cannot share with the public.”
Avi Dichter, a former security agency chief and now the Likud head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he regretted Mr. Lieberman’s resignation, adding, “In my opinion, it stems from political interests, not security ones.”
Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that there were no good solutions for the Gaza conundrum but that “maybe the cease-fire was reached too early, before Hamas was punished more severely.”
Mr. Lieberman entered the coalition with a history of far-reaching goals and demands, including the introduction of the death penalty for people convicted of terrorist attacks, the toppling of Hamas and the ousting of the more moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
As defense minister, he soon proved more pragmatic. In reality, Israel’s defense policy has largely been set by Mr. Netanyahu, in consultation with other senior security officials.
Mr. Lieberman’s other disagreements with Mr. Netanyahu included the entry of Qatari-financed fuel into Gaza, which he opposed but which Mr. Netanyahu forced him to permit in order to ease a chronic electricity shortage in the Palestinian territory.
He also objected when Mr. Netanyahu allowed $15 million in cash from Qatar to go to Gaza as part of a broader plan to ease tensions; Mr. Lieberman said the money “went first of all to the families of the terrorists.”
And he opposed the delays in demolishing Khan al-Ahmar, a tiny Bedouin village in the West Bank, whose structures lack the required permits. The planned demolition has been internationally condemned, and Mr. Lieberman said Mr. Netanyahu had issued a written order stopping it.
Mr. Lieberman earned a reputation as a blunt talking, polarizing figure, but his party’s strength has dwindled in recent opinion polls, barely scraping past the electoral threshold.
He was named defense minister in May 2016, as part of a political deal augmenting Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, which had survived for a year with a razor-thin majority of one.
Follow Isabel Kershner on Twitter: @IKershner
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Israeli Defense Minister Quits Over Cease-Fire. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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