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Israel's Defense Minister Resigns, Says 'Extremist Elements' Have Taken Over Government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly offered the job to hardliner Avigidor Lieberman, in a move set to create the most right-wing government in the country's history.

by Harriet Salem
May 20 2016, 4:45pm

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon announcing his resignation at his office in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2016. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum/EPA

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon resigned on Friday, saying that "extremist and dangerous elements" had hijacked the nation after the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to replace him with the leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

In a televised speech outside the defense ministry a grim-faced Yaalon, who spent four years in the post, said he was stepping down following "difficult disputes over matters of principle and professionalism" with Netanyahu and several members of the cabinet.

"I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence, and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its sturdiness and also trickling into the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]," he continued. "Sadly, leading politicians in this country chose the path of inciting and dividing between parts of Israeli society, instead of uniting and joining [them]."

Netanyahu is believed to have offered the newly vacant post to hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, who is also a bitter rival of the prime minister.

The appointment would be a substantial about-turn by the prime minister, who last year refused to give Lieberman the defense portfolio after the general election, resulting in his secularist right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party opting to remain outside of the government.

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If the appointment is confirmed, the addition of Yisrael Beitenu to the current six-party governing coalition would serve to bolster Netanyahu's razor-thin majority — controlling 61 of parliament's 120 seats — by six seats.

It would also mean that Israel's government, will become the "most right-wing and most extremist government since the founding of the state," said conservative newspaper Maariv.

Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer in his native Moldova, has little military experience and is known for his hawkish views, including advocating for the transfer of Israeli Arabs into the Palestinian territories and introducing the death penalty for terrorists. Last year he said Palestinians who were disloyal to the Israel state "deserved to have their heads chopped off with an axe."

Netanyahu reportedly offered the post to Lieberman after backroom talks with Issac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union party, broke down.

On Wednesday, when negotiations were still ongoing, Herzog described the decision faced by Netanyahu over who to appoint to the post as a "historic choice" between a future of "wars and funerals" with Lieberman or "hope for all [Israeli] citizens" with the Zionist Union.

Yaalon's resignation follows a public disagreement with Netanyahu over comments made by a senior general who likened "nauseating trends" in Israel to Nazi Germany in the 1930s during a Holocaust Memorial Day speech. While the then-defense minister backed the general, the infuriated prime minister called the comments "wrong" and "unacceptable."

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The two also appeared to diverge over the decision of the military to prosecute a soldier caught on video shooting dead a subdued Palestinian attacker. While Yaalon backed the move, Netanyahu called the officer's parents to offer his reassurance that their son would receive a "fair trial."

However, commenting on Yaalon's resignation Netanyahu claimed that his decision to remove Yaalon from the position of defense minister "did not result from a crisis of faith" between the two men but stemmed from "the need to expand the government in order to bring stability to Israel." He also noted that he had offered Yaalon the position of foreign minister, a post that Netanyahu currently moonlights in, but that he declined the role.

Yaalon, who tweeted on Friday that he had a complete "lack of faith" in the prime minister, has said that he will be taking a short break from political life, but has future plans to return and contend for the leadership of the country.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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