Israel's Defense Chief Resigns, Slams Netanyahu for 'Surrendering to Hamas Terror'

Lieberman calls for early elections, says opposed to cease-fire and flow of millions of dollars into Gaza ■ Netanyahu to take on defense portfolio

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announces his resignation in his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Israel, November 14, 2018.
AFP

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday and called for elections to be held as soon as possible, saying he hopes a date will be set by Sunday. Lieberman said all of the members of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, will quit the coalition.

However, a senior source in Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, said that elections are not necessarily the next step and added that Netanyahu will initially take on Lieberman's portfolio. Lieberman, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, will retake his Knesset seat following his resignation, as provided for by law.

>> Analysis: Defense minister fires first salvo of elections. The timing couldn't be worse for Netanyahu ■ Why Netanyahu will do almost anything for a Gaza cease-fire

"I didn't look for reasons to quit," Lieberman said in a press conference. "I tried to remain a loyal government member, in the cabinet, keep differences internal even at an electoral cost." The two turning points, he said, were the millions of dollars in cash delivered from Qatar to Gaza, and the cease-fire Israel reached with Hamas on Tuesday.

"There is no other definition, no other significance, but a capitulation to terror," he said, adding: "What we are doing now as a country is buying short-term quiet at the cost of our long-term security."

"It is no secret that there were differences between the prime minister and I," Lieberman said. "I did not agree to allow entry of Qatari money [into Gaza], and I had to allow it only after the prime minister announced it." He said similar differences revolved around the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank.

Lieberman and Netanyahu at a security meeting in Tel Aviv, November 13, 2018
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Yisrael Beiteinu's departure means Netanyahu still holds a slender Knesset majority (61-59) seats to maintain the coalition. Another key coalition partner in Netanyahu's government, Habayit Hayehudi (headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett), said that unless the defense portfolio goes to Bennett, the party will also quit the coalition.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said Lieberman's resignation is a recognition of Israel's defeat in this week's military confrontation with the Islamic group.

Following the cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Lieberman and Bennett published statements against the truce reached with Hamas. Sources said that as soon as the latest round of fighting erupted, Lieberman demanded a "harsh, decisive" move against Hamas. Sources close to Bennett said his opposition to the cease-fire was crystal clear.

Other sources, however, said that ultimately the ministers unanimously supported the defense establishment's position that action should be taken to restore the calm.

According to associates of Lieberman, the Prime Minister's Office's claim that the defense minister had supported the cease-fire agreement in Gaza infuriated him.

Senior Hamas official Husan Badran said Tuesday, the third day of hostilities, that "if Netanyahu is interested in ending this round, he must fire [Defense Minister] Lieberman, who in his foolish conduct caused the escalation."

"After Lieberman goes home, Netanyahu needs to be the next in line. He is the man who promised to 'bring down the Hamas government,'" but ultimately became "the insurance certificate" for Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar.

Avi Gabbay, the head of the opposition Zionist Union faction, welcomed Lieberman's resignation and in a cynical post on Facebook called the defense minister "the wrong person to handle the security of Israel's citizens."

He then laid into Lieberman calling him "a wheeler-dealer the level of whose corruption and rot and that of his associates has eaten up a good portion of the public service."

Gabbay, who prior to joining the Zionist Union was the environmental protection minister in Netanyahu's cabinet, noted that his own resignation from the cabinet was prompted by Lieberman's appointment, which he called "the straw that broke the camel's back."

For her part, Zionist Union Knesset member Ksenia Svetlova tweeted: "Apparently two long years were not enough for Avigdor Lieberman to elimatinate Haniyeh within 48 hours, as he had promised, but on the other hand, 48 hours was enough for Haniyeh to eliminate Lieberman's term as defense minister."

Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union called on the entire government to resign, saying that "the government, which has failed in defense, needs to go. There is no peace, no security."

Livni called for elections, which she claimed would result in an "emergency coalition" headed by the Zionist Union and said not of the current coalition partners have answers regarding Israel's defense. The country needs a new defense strategy combining military strength and a diplomatic initiative, she said.

The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, of Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party, expressed regret at Lieberman's resignation but called it "entirely political." Questioning the timing of the resignation following the hostilities with Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Dichter said: "After 24 hours of a security campaign, [he] announces that he's jumping ship? The explanations are not convincing enough. I come from another culture."

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said Lieberman's resignation is a sign that the Netanyahu government is coming to the end of the road. "Today the countdown has begun. Today the campaign to restore security, responsibility and leadership to the State of Israel has begun."

Leah and Simcha Goldin, the parents of Hadar Goldin, whose body has been held in Gaza since he was killed in combat there in 2014, also responded to Lieberman's resignation. The Goldins said Lieberman "stated things clearly and resoundingly that need to be inscribed in the heart of every Israeli citizen for whom the Israeli army's values and mutual responsibility are important." 

There should be no long-term arrangement in Gaza that does not address the return of their son's body, the body of another soldier, Oron Shaul, and the return of two Israeli civilians who are believed to be held in Gaza. "This responsibility is now solely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Netanyahu," the Goldins said.

In recent weeks, Lieberman and Bennett have publicly argued between them about Gaza and Israel's actions there. Last month, Bennett charged Lieberman of a weak, left-wing defense policy, while Lieberman retorted that in cabinet meetings, Bennett says the opposite of what he says in public.

Lieberman and the cabinet were divided about the sale of gasoline and natural gas to Gaza, and in defense forums, it was decided that the defense minister may not make decisions on the subject without the cabinet's agreement. The ministers were surprised last month by Lieberman's decision to cut off the fuel supply to Gaza, a decision he made on his own, in contradiction to the position of the defense establishment. Netanyahu and the cabinet members heard of the decision for the first time through the media.