JERUSALEM — Israel’s hawkish defense minister resigned Wednesday over his opposition to a cease-fire with Hamas following the worst Gaza violence since 2014, bringing the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the brink of collapse and potentially ushering in early elections.
In a televised news conference, Avigdor Liberman, who became defense minister in 2016, said that agreeing to the cease-fire was “surrendering to terror.” He has been a proponent of firm military action against Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, even if this risked a wider conflict.
The withdrawal of Liberman’s party from the governing coalition leaves Netanyahu with a one-seat majority in Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset. Liberman called for elections to be held as soon as possible.
All eyes are now on Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of another right-wing party, who has also called for a stronger military response to the Gaza unrest. Bennett, who has a fractious relationship with Netanyahu, is demanding to take Liberman’s place as defense minister or his party will also leave the coalition, according to senior officials in his party. Analysts say Netanyahu is more likely to call elections than bend to Bennett’s demand.
Palestinian armed factions in Gaza announced the cease-fire on Tuesday night after a bout of fighting triggered by a botched Israeli operation into the Hamas-controlled strip. Seven militants, including a Hamas commander, were killed in the incident, which also claimed the life of an Israeli officer.
Militants fired more than 460 rockets toward Israeli communities near Gaza in what they said was a response to the deaths, as Israeli jets pounded 160 targets inside Gaza, destroying several buildings.
The cease-fire was still holding Wednesday, though there was no official confirmation by the Israeli officials that they had accepted.
Residents of southern Israeli communities have protested what they called the government’s capitulation. Demonstrators burned tires on the main road into the city of Sderot and blocked the main commercial crossing into Gaza.
But in Gaza, Palestinians celebrated the cease-fire as a victory. And following Liberman’s announcement that he was stepping down, Hamas crowed over the move as another win, handing out sweets on the streets. “The resignation of Liberman is a political victory for Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. He said it was an admission of defeat and showed that Hamas had succeeded in “creating a political shake-up in the occupation.”
Liberman said his resignation came after weeks of disagreement with Netanyahu over how to handle ongoing tensions centered in the coastal Palestinian enclave.
Last week, the Israeli government facilitated the transfer of $15 million in cash from Qatar to Gaza to pay salaries of civil servants and employees of the Hamas-run government, as part of a wider deal aimed at alleviating the worsening economic crisis in the territory.
This was part of an understanding that would have entailed economic aid for Gaza, including a cash injection
and international reconstruction projects, in return for Hamas clamping down on border demonstrations and preventing the use of incendiary kites that have been launched across the border fence into Israel.
Netanyahu said Sunday that the goal was to maintain Israel’s security by preventing a collapse in the humanitarian situation for the 2 million civilians “held hostage” by Hamas.
Liberman said the transfer of the money was a “turning point” for him. “Everyone saying the money will be regulated after entering Gaza is wrong — to put it mildly,” he said. “The money went first of all to the terrorists’ families.”
The Moldovan-born minister said it was no secret that he and the prime minister had differences of opinion. “I did not agree to allow Qatari money to enter” Gaza, he said. “I had to allow it only after the prime minister announced it.”
The differences between Liberman and Netanyahu culminated with the decision to adhere to the cease-fire.
“There is no other definition, no other significance, but a surrender to terror,” Liberman said. “What we are doing now as a country is buying short-term quiet at the cost of our long-term security.”
Analysts say Liberman likely has one eye on elections, which would come at a time when Netanyahu has been weakened politically. Liberman’s departure makes it more likely that Netanyahu will call new elections, they said.
Political analysts and media commentators have long suspected that Netanyahu wanted to hold a vote before his full term in office ends in another year. An election victory could help distract public attention from the ongoing corruption investigation he faces and from a possible indictment and trial.
Netanyahu is unlikely to give in to Bennett’s demand to become defense minister, said Abraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and that also means early elections are likely.
In a meeting Wednesday, Bennett’s Knesset faction voted unanimously to demand the defense portfolio to enhance Israel’s deterrence capacity, officials in the party said. If there wasn’t such improvement, it would be pointless to remain in the government, they said.
Netanyahu has said he does not believe there is a long-term diplomatic solution to the threat posed by militants in Gaza, but at the same time, he has resisted military action.
While he talks tough on security, Netanyahu has proven cautious when it comes to military action, said Yoaz Hendel, chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, who was previously Netanyahu’s communications director. “There is a huge gap between a politician’s declarations and the actions they take after elections.”
Netanyahu held a marathon meeting with his security cabinet, including Liberman, through much of the day Tuesday.
A statement following the meeting said only that the Israeli military had been “instructed to continue its operations as necessary.” Israeli news outlets later reported that a cease-fire had been agreed to.
Israel and Hamas have fought three deadly wars in 10 years, and flare-ups have become increasingly frequent in recent months as Hamas has urged residents to protest at the fence along the border with Israel. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the weekly protests, which Israel calls riots and a cover for terrorist attacks.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu took part in a ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, at his grave in southern Israel, which faced the brunt of the barrage of rockets Monday and Tuesday.
“A leader must be attentive to the hearts of the people, and our people are wise, but in times of emergency and when making crucial decisions in the field of security, the public cannot always be a partner to the crucial considerations,” he said. “At these moments, leadership is not about doing the easy thing. Leadership is about doing the right thing, even if it is difficult.”