JERUSALEM—In a surprise move, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has resigned, thrusting the Israeli government into uncertain territory.
Lieberman kept his intentions close to his chest, surprising everyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to members of his own political party, who now find themselves in the parliamentary opposition.
Lieberman announced his departure from the coalition in a punchy press conference in which he accused Netanyahu of “capitulating to Hamas terror” with the truce that halted fire on the Israel-Gaza border yesterday after two days of battle.
He called on Netanyahu to advance the elections that are currently scheduled for November 2019.
The survival of Netanyahu’s government is in doubt after Lieberman and the members of his party, the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, left the prime minister with a coalition of only 61 out of a 120-member parliament.
The government’s ability to endure was put into further doubt by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s declaration that he will only remain in the cabinet if he receives the defense portfolio Lieberman has vacated.
Netanyahu appears to be trying to keep the shaky coalition together, with the prime minister adding defense to his own responsibilities.
“I tried to remain a loyal government member, in the cabinet, keeping differences internal even at an electoral cost,” Lieberman said at the press conference, in which he pointed to the cash delivered by Qatar to Gaza last week and yesterday’s ceasefire as two ideological breaking points that forced his hand.
Speaking of the truce, Lieberman said, “There is no other definition, no other significance but capitulation to terror.”
“What we are doing now as a country,” he said, “is buying short-term quiet at the cost of our long-term security.”
Hamas, the Islamist militia that rules the Gaza Strip, celebrated Lieberman's resignation as a “victory” following Israel's supposed defeat in the two-day military confrontation. Husan Badran, a senior Hamas official, had said on Tuesday that “if Netanyahu is interested in ending this round, he must fire Lieberman, who in his foolish conduct caused the escalation.”
The fighting began with a botched operation inside Gaza by Israeli special operations forces.
In fact, the timing could not be better for Lieberman, who will now be able to stick the stalemate in Gaza on Netanyahu. He indirectly accused the remaining cabinet ministers of participating in an unpopular “surrender” to Hamas, which has staged weekly protests for seven months at the border Gaza shares with Israel, and which bombarded Israel with rockets and missiles from Sunday to Tuesday.
In a statement that signaled the virtual beginning of Israeli elections, Lieberman touched on every issue calculated to shore up his nationalistic bona fides among right-wing, hardline base voters.
Avi Gabbay, the Labor party leader who hopes to lead the challenge to Netanyahu from the center-left, summed up the opposition view with a two-word tweet “good riddance.”