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Israel’s defence minister quits, saying extremists have taken over government

Moshe Yaalon said he no longer had any trust in prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he offered Mr Yaalon's post to a hardliner loathed by the Palestinians in a bid to expand the governing coalition’s majority.
Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon announces his resignation during a press conference on May 20, 2016, in Tel Aviv. Jack Guez/AFP
Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon announces his resignation during a press conference on May 20, 2016, in Tel Aviv. Jack Guez/AFP

JERUSALEM // Israel’s defence minister resigned on Friday, saying extremists had taken over the government and country after he clashed with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the army’s handling of a wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Moshe Yaalon said he no longer had any trust in Mr Netanyahu after the hawkish prime minister offered his post to a hardliner loathed by the Palestinians in a bid to expand the governing coalition’s majority.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he could bring his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party into Mr Netanyahu’s governing coalition if a number of conditions were met, including his being named defence minister.

Mr Lieberman is known for his anti-Palestinian tirades. In 2015 he said that Israeli Palestinians disloyal to Israel “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe” and earlier this year accused some Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament of being the “representatives of terrorist organisations”.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said on Thursday that should Mr Lieberman join the government it would be good news for Israeli “settlers and ultra-extremists”.

“The inclusion of Lieberman, known for his extreme right-wing [views] toward Palestinians, is new evidence that Netanyahu as usual prefers to promote extremism in his government,” it said.

“The decision represents Netanyahu’s response to French, international and regional efforts to revive the peace process between the two sides – Palestinian and Israeli – and sends a strong message to the world.”

Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party pressed talks with Yisrael Beitenu on Friday on the terms of a coalition deal.

The surprise resignation of Mr Yaalon, a former armed forces chief, follows a series of disputes over the Israeli military’s values and role in society between ministers in Mr Netanyahu’s government and top generals backed by Mr Yaalon.

“I told the prime minister this morning that due to his conduct in recent developments, and in light of my lack of trust in him, I am resigning from the government and Knesset (parliament) and taking a break from political life,” Mr Yaalon said.

The defence minister’s resignation does not take effect for two days and, hours after it was announced, he warned in a broadcast address of a rising tide of extremism in the ruling Likud party and the country as a whole.

“Extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud and are threatening [society],” he said.

He urged the “sane majority” of Likud voters as well as the rest of the nation “to realise the severe implications of the extremist takeover of the centre, and fight this phenomenon.”

Mr Yaalon had insisted on senior army officers’ right to “speak their mind” after deputy armed forces chief Major General Yair Golan enraged Mr Netanyahu by comparing contemporary Israeli society to Nazi Germany.

Ironically, Mr Yaalon’s resignation will move the Likud parliamentary party further to the right as his seat in parliament will be taken by religious hardliner Yehuda Glick, who is next on the party list.

The 50-year-old US-born rabbi is an outspoken campaigner for a change to rules governing Jerusalem’s most sensitive site, the Al Aqsa mosque compound, to allow Jews to pray as well as visit.

Palestinian fears that the government might be preparing such a change were one of the triggers for the wave of violence that erupted last October.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed since then, including 25 children in the last three months of 2015 alone. Twenty-eight Israelis have been killed in the same time period.

Israel claims that most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out, or attempting to carry out, attacks on Israelis, but human rights organisations have criticised the Israeli security forces of using excessive force.

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: May 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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