JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation on Wednesday in protest at a Gaza ceasefire that he called a “capitulation to terror”, weakening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government.
“Were I to stay in office, I would not be able to look southern residents in the eye,” Lieberman told reporters, referring to Israelis subjected to a surge in Palestinian rocket attacks before Tuesday’s truce took hold.
Lieberman said his resignation, which will go into effect 48 hours after he submits a formal letter to Netanyahu, also withdraws his far-right Israel Beitenu party from the coalition.
That would leave Netanyahu with control of just 61 of the 120 seats in parliament a year before Israel’s next election.
Political commentators had speculated that Netanyahu, who despite his approval ratings has been dogged by multiple corruption investigations, might bring forward the ballot.
They also saw in Lieberman’s decision to quit a bid to poach votes from Netanyahu and far-right cabinet rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, ahead of an election.
A spokesman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud played down the option of an early poll, saying the prime minister would assume the defence post.
“There is no need to go to an election during what is a sensitive period for national security. This government can see out its days,” the spokesman, Jonatan Urich, said on Twitter.
The cracks in the coalition could soon widen, however.
In Jewish Home, which has eight lawmakers, there were calls for Bennett, now education minister, to succeed Lieberman as defence chief.
Bennett did not immediately comment. Losing him would reduce Netanyahu’s parliamentary control to 53 seats, making a snap election inevitable.
But as defence minister, he could be no less a thorn in Netanyahu’s side than Lieberman.
Lieberman and Bennett have spoken in favour of harsh Israeli military action against Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, even as the government authorised a Qatari cash infusion to the impoverished enclave last week and limited itself to air strikes rather than a wider campaigns during this week’s fighting.
Netanyahu cast Israel’s handling of Gaza as prudence.
“Leadership also means standing up to criticism when you know things that are classified and which you cannot share with the public that you love,” he said in a speech. “Our enemies begged for a ceasefire, and they know well why.”
Hamas, which over the last decade has fought three wars against Israel that deepened Gaza’s economic hardships, saw victory in the Lieberman’s departure.
“Lieberman’s resignation is a recognition of the defeat before the growing force of the Palestinian resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “It also showed a state of weakness that has overcome the Israelis.”
Born in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman, who has also held the foreign affairs portfolio, established an electoral base among the votes of fellow Russian-speaking immigrants. He also counts among his supporters other Israeli Jews who share his suspicions of Israel’s Arab minority or oppose the religious authority and political clout of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.