JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's defense minister announced his resignation Friday, saying the governing party had been taken over by "extremist and dangerous elements" and that he no longer trusts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The departure of Moshe Yaalon — one of the last moderate voices in the Likud Party — deepens the rift in the Cabinet between the security establishment and the hard-line politicians.
Netanyahu reportedly intends to appoint former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to the post of defense minister. The 57-year-old Lieberman is one of Israel's most polarizing politicians. Over three decades, he has at times been Netanyahu's closest ally and at other times a fierce rival.
If Yaalon is replaced as expected by Lieberman, command of the Defense Ministry will transition from a general who led one of Israel's most elite commando units and later was its chief of staff to a politician who held the rank of corporal, almost the lowest military rank. Lieberman's limited military experience raises further questions about the appointment.
Yaalon told reporters that "Israel is a healthy society" with a "sane majority" that is tolerant of minorities and strives for a liberal and democratic society.
"But to my great dismay, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel, also over the Likud Party, and are shaking the house and threatening to hurt its inhabitants," he said. "I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that threatens its sturdiness and is seeping into the army and already damaging it."
Earlier, Yaalon said he told Netanyahu that "following his conduct in recent developments and in light of the lack of trust in him, I am resigning from the government." He added that he also was resigning from parliament and was "taking a timeout from political life."
Yaalon and Netanyahu have butted heads repeatedly over military officers talking publicly about political matters. Netanyahu was enraged earlier this month when a senior officer made public comments viewed as critical of the government, while Yaalon backed the general's right to freely express his views.
Yaalon said he always put Israel's security and other interests above his own, but "unfortunately I found myself lately in tough disputes over moral and professional issues with the prime minister and several ministers and members of parliament."
Tensions between Yaalon and Netanyahu escalated in March, when military leaders criticized a soldier who was caught on video fatally shooting an already-wounded Palestinian attacker. The solider is now on trial for manslaughter. While Yaalon has backed the military, Lieberman went to the court to offer his support to the soldier.
Netanyahu said he regretted Yaalon's decision and that he would have preferred him to stay on, but as foreign minister. The prime minister also said the political shake-up was not because of differences with Yaalon but out of the need to widen the coalition to "bring stability to Israel against the big challenges it faces."
He said the military "will continue to preserve the highest moral standards" and added that the army must remain outside of politics. "In a democracy, the military echelon is subordinate to the political echelon, and not the reverse," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu this week invited Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beteinu Party to shore up his shaky parliamentary coalition and negotiation teams have been meeting to hammer out the details of their alliance.
Yaalon's resignation solidifies the takeover of hard-liners in the party, especially in the Cabinet, which is dominated by those who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.
Cabinet Minister Gila Gamliel said Yaalon's departure was a "tremendous loss" for the ruling Likud. She told Israel Radio she believes it was a "mistake" not to offer Yaalon another post and keep him in the coalition.
Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the political upheaval.
"There has been a hostile takeover of the leadership by elements foreign to the spirit of the state of Israel and to the spirit of the military," he said in an interview with Channel 10 TV.
"This is a wrong appointment. To take the best man — the most fitting for the job — and demote him, and put in his place a person with political and other capabilities but completely lacking in experience in this field, is a mistake and an expression of faulty considerations," Barak said.
He called it a move that is "irresponsible for the military and the citizens of the country."
Many Israelis have questioned the wisdom of appointing Lieberman to the sensitive post of defense minister over Yaalon, a former army chief of staff who is generally respected for his knowledge of military affairs. Lieberman has no such military experience, although he has held a number of Cabinet posts, including stints as foreign minister.
Lieberman's hard-line stance has made him an influential voice at home but has at times alienated Israel's allies abroad. He has questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority and brashly confronted Israel's foreign critics. He has expressed skepticism over pursuing peace with the Palestinians, and is pushing a proposal to impose the death penalty against Arabs convicted of acts of terrorism.
Lieberman, who once worked as a bouncer at a bar, immigrated to Israel in 1978 from Moldova in the former Soviet Union and still speaks with a thick Russian accent.
He became a national figure in 1996 as a top aide to Netanyahu in a previous term as prime minister. Lieberman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, later quit Likud and established Yisrael Beiteinu to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Those close to Lieberman say he is more pragmatic and level-headed than he appears in public.
The addition of his party's six seats will give Netanyahu a 67-53 majority in the 120-seat parliament, providing new room to maneuver on domestic affairs. Along with military policy, the Defense Ministry handles delicate security issues with allies, some of whom Lieberman has antagonized. Lieberman has angered Egypt, which has close security ties with Israel, with comments years ago calling for Israel to bomb the Aswan Dam. In another flap, he said Egypt's then-president, Hosni Mubarak, could "go to hell."
Yaalon's departure also paves the way for Yehuda Glick to enter the government. An Israeli-American activist, Glick has campaigned to allow Jewish prayer at Jerusalem's holiest site, the hilltop compound in the Old City that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
The compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical Temples and the holiest place in Judaism. Known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, and is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Perceived changes to the status quo that bans Jews from praying at the site have sparked Palestinian violence. Tensions erupted in September and months of bloodshed followed with dozens of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and security personnel.
Since then, Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, shootings and vehicular assaults, have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans. About 200 Palestinians have been killed as well, most of whom Israel says were attackers.
Glick survived an attempt on his life in 2014 when he was shot several times by a Palestinian.