In a shocking turn of events even by Israeli political standards, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon resigned from government on Friday over what he called a “lack of confidence” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was reported to be on the verge of replacing Ya’alon with Avigdor Lieberman, in a bid to bring Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party into his coalition, which currently hangs by only a single-seat majority. Unlike Ya’alon, a decorated veteran and former IDF chief of staff who had been critical of racist and anti-democratic elements in Israeli society, Lieberman has little military experience and is known instead for his brash, ultra-hawkish outlook.
In a powerful press conference, Ya’alon blasted the country’s Likud government, accusing it of being taken over by extremists who do not represent the Israeli public. “In general, Israeli society is a healthy society,” he said. “The majority here is sane and seeks a Jewish, democratic, and liberal state, a state that accepts each person as a person, without distinction of religion, race, gender, ethnic origin or sexual orientation, a tolerant and accepting country for the weakest and the minorities, who we have a duty to embrace and not to incite against, a country that fights unequivocally against the marginalization of women, sexual harassment toward them, or turning them into the accused.”
“But to my great regret,” he continued, “extremist and dangerous forces have taken over Israel and the Likud movement and are destabilizing our home and threatening to harm its inhabitants.”
“This is not the Likud I joined—the Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin—and it is appropriate that the decisive majority of Likud voters, a sane, respectable and responsible public, understands the depth of the crisis and the recklessness of this spirit that is taking over the movement. I hope that the general public, too, on right and left, understands the serious consequences of the takeover of the center by an extremist minority, and will fight these phenomena. This is existential; the state’s existence depends on it.”
What does Ya’alon’s dramatic departure mean for Israeli politics, both today and tomorrow? In the short term, presuming Lieberman is indeed brought into the coalition and given Ya’alon’s post, the move bodes ill for Israel’s internal cohesion and international standing.
Lieberman was persona non grata when he served as Israel’s foreign minister, and is unlikely to enjoy the same congenial working relationship with his U.S. counterparts as Ya’alon did. This is particularly perilous at a time when America and Israel are negotiating a new memorandum of understanding on the Jewish state’s security aid.
Domestically, Lieberman’s penchant for bellicose pronouncements—calling for toppling Hamas in Gaza, for instance—is unlikely to mix well with the professional and traditionally moderate leadership of the IDF which he will oversee.
In other words, like many recent Netanyahu moves, putting Lieberman in the defense ministry solves a personal political problem for the prime minister, but exacerbates problems for the nation as a whole.
In the long term, however, Netanyahu may have taken a major gamble on his political future. He will now face constant hawkish pressure within his own government from Lieberman, an arch-nemesis who will seek to supplant him. And outside the government, he has turned Ya’alon, a respected figure in Israel and former ally, into a staunch opponent.
In abandoning Netanyahu, Ya’alon joins a long line of prominent right-wing politicians, many of them moderates, who exiled themselves from Likud. Some, like Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, went on to start their own parties to rival Netanyahu’s. Others, like popular former minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings to challenge their former boss with a right-wing alternative in the next election.
And if Ya’alon’s parting remarks are any guide, he does not intend to go quietly into the night. As Haaretz Knesset analyst Yossi Verter put it:
Ya’alon isn’t giving up and he has no intention of settling in the cattle shed. The opposite is true. He will use the time-out he has imposed on himself to prepare, organize the troops and send out the message.
As far as Ya’alon is concerned, Netanyahu has to go. He was correct when he said that today’s Likud wasn’t the Likud he joined on the eve of the 2009 election. Back then it was a moderate party of the right – a mainstream party in which prominent people such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Gideon Sa’ar, Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Kahlon and Michael Eitan set the tone.
Netanyahu’s political obituary has been written far too many times in the past for anyone to foretell it now with any sense of certainty. But should he be defeated next election, many may look back on Ya’alon’s fiery departure as the spark that finally ignited the growing kindling of the anti-Bibi blaze.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.