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Israel's defence minister quits amid rift with Benjamin Netanyahu

Published 20/05/2016

Benjamin Netanyahu said he regretted the resignation
Benjamin Netanyahu said he regretted the resignation

Israel's defence minister announced his resignation on Friday, saying the governing party had been taken over by "extremist and dangerous elements" and that he no longer trusts prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The departure of Moshe Yaalon - one of the last moderate voices in the Likud Party - deepens the rift in the Cabinet between the security establishment and the hard-line politicians.

Mr Netanyahu reportedly intends to appoint former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to the post of defence minister.

The 57-year-old Mr Lieberman is one of Israel's most polarising politicians. Over three decades, he has at times been Mr Netanyahu's closest ally and at other times a fierce rival.

If Mr Yaalon is replaced as expected by Mr Lieberman, command of the Defence Ministry will transition from a general who led one of Israel's most elite commando units and later was its chief of staff to a politician who held the rank of corporal, almost the lowest military rank. Mr Lieberman's limited military experience raises further questions about the appointment.

Mr Yaalon told reporters that "Israel is a healthy society" with a "sane majority" that is tolerant of minorities and strives for a liberal and democratic society.

"But to my great dismay, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel, also over the Likud Party, and are shaking the house and threatening to hurt its inhabitants," he said. "I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that threatens its sturdiness and is seeping into the army and already damaging it."

Earlier, Mr Yaalon said he told Mr Netanyahu that "following his conduct in recent developments and in light of the lack of trust in him, I am resigning from the government." He added that he also was resigning from parliament and was "taking a timeout from political life."

Mr Yaalon and Mr Netanyahu have butted heads repeatedly over military officers talking publicly about political matters. Mr Netanyahu was enraged earlier this month when a senior officer made public comments viewed as critical of the government, while Mr Yaalon backed the general's right to freely express his views.

Mr Yaalon said he always put Israel's security and other interests above his own, but "unfortunately I found myself lately in tough disputes over moral and professional issues with the prime minister and several ministers and members of parliament".

Tensions between Mr Yaalon and Mr Netanyahu escalated in March, when military leaders criticised a soldier who was caught on video fatally shooting an already-wounded Palestinian attacker. The soldier is now on trial for manslaughter. While Mr Yaalon has backed the military, Mr Lieberman went to the court to offer his support to the soldier.

Mr Netanyahu said he regretted Mr Yaalon's decision and that he would have preferred him to stay on, but as foreign minister. The prime minister also said the political shake-up was not because of differences with Mr Yaalon but out of the need to widen the coalition to "bring stability to Israel against the big challenges it faces".

He said the military "will continue to preserve the highest moral standards" and added that the army must remain outside of politics. "In a democracy, the military echelon is subordinate to the political echelon, and not the reverse," Mr Netanyahu said.

Mr Netanyahu this week invited Mr Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beteinu Party to shore up his shaky parliamentary coalition and negotiation teams have been meeting to hammer out the details of their alliance.

Mr Yaalon's resignation solidifies the takeover of hard-liners in the party, especially in the Cabinet, which is dominated by those who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.

Cabinet Minister Gila Gamliel said Mr Yaalon's departure was a "tremendous loss" for the ruling Likud. She told Israel Radio she believes it was a "mistake" not to offer Mr Yaalon another post and keep him in the coalition.

Former defence minister Ehud Barak criticised the political upheaval.

"There has been a hostile takeover of the leadership by elements foreign to the spirit of the state of Israel and to the spirit of the military," he said in an interview with Channel 10 TV.

"This is a wrong appointment. To take the best man - the most fitting for the job - and demote him, and put in his place a person with political and other capabilities but completely lacking in experience in this field, is a mistake and an expression of faulty considerations," Barak said.

He called it a move that is "irresponsible for the military and the citizens of the country".

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