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Israeli defense minister resigns over Gaza cease-fire; move could bring down Netanyahu's government

Israeli defense minister resigns over Gaza cease-fire; move could bring down Netanyahu's government
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks on Sept. 27. (Atef Safadi / EPA/Shutterstock)

Accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “capitulating to Hamas terror” by agreeing to a Gaza cease-fire, Israel’s hard-line Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman abruptly resigned Wednesday, a move that is likely to trigger early elections.

In a combative news conference at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Lieberman said he could no longer serve in a government that would take part in a truce with the Palestinian Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip.

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The Israeli government reportedly agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas, the group ruling Gaza, after two days of intense back-and-forth rocket attacks, some of which landed in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

“There is no other definition, no other meaning other than capitulation to terror,” Lieberman said of Wednesday’s agreement, which he said he opposed in a Cabinet vote.

He reproached the government for “buying short-term quiet at the cost of our long-term security.”

Lieberman called on Netanyahu to announce a speedy move toward elections scheduled to take place in November 2019.

Netanyahu did not directly address the truce or Lieberman’s claims, but at a ceremony on Wednesday commemorating David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, he said: “Leadership is not to do the easy thing; leadership is to do the right thing, even if it is difficult. Leadership is sometimes facing criticism, when you know confidential and sensitive information that you cannot share with the citizens of Israel.”

Lieberman’s departure leaves Netanyahu with a rickety coalition of 61 out of a 120-member parliament.

Further imperiling the government, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has threatened to resign if he is not appointed to replace Lieberman as defense minister. The withdrawal of Bennett’s hawkish Jewish Home party from the coalition would topple Netanyahu’s government.

In what he described as an attempt “to stabilize the government,” Netanyahu held meetings into the evening with his remaining coalition partners.

Leaders of religious parties who met with him reported he said he hoped to avert early elections, and by evening Netanyahu advisors were allowing that the hard-right Bennett, who often publicly defies the prime minister, may be appointed to lead the defense ministry.

Hamas on Wednesday called Lieberman’s resignation a victory, one day after holding street celebrations after accepting the truce.

The timing of Lieberman’s departure could not be better for him or worse in terms of Netanyahu’s pre-electoral optics.

Hundreds of residents of Israel’s south protested against the government on Tuesday and Wednesday for accepting a cease-fire they called a humiliating surrender to the Palestinian terror groups that the Israeli army says launched 460 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel over a period of 48 hours.

“I hear the voices of the residents of the south,” Netanyahu said at the memorial ceremony. “But together with the heads of the security forces, I see the overall picture of Israel's security, which I cannot share with the public.”

One senior Israeli special operations officer and one civilian were killed by Palestinian fire while 14 Palestinians, 13 of them identified as combatants by Gaza’s Health Ministry, died in the fighting.

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With Israeli ministers already vying for electoral advantages, and with volatile borders in the south and in the north with Lebanon and Syria, Netanyahu -- who also faces a probable indictment on corruption charges — finds himself in a vulnerable position.

If the government’s fall appears imminent or if it does not survive a vote of no confidence in the Knesset, Netanyahu must order elections within 90 days.

“He’s going to have to find a way to buy some time,” Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University professor of political science and an expert on Israeli politics, said in an interview. “He needs time to blur the current panorama. He is in a difficult predicament, outflanked to the right.”

Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and Bennett’s pro-settlement Jewish Home are competing for the conservative votes Netanyahu’s conservative Likud will need in the next elections.

“It’s no secret there were differences between the prime minister and me,” Lieberman said Wednesday, alleging he was also “forced to accept” Qatar’s delivery of $15 million in cash to Gaza last week “only after the prime minister announced it.”

Avi Gabbay, the Labor party leader who hopes to mount a challenge from the center-left, articulated the opposition’s position with a two-word tweet,: “Good riddance.”

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

10:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.

The article was originally published at 4:50 a.m.

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