JERUSALEM — Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced his resignation Wednesday, citing his opposition to a cease-fire with Hamas following the worst outbreak of violence in Gaza since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014.
In a televised news conference, Liberman, who became defense minister in 2016, said that agreeing to a 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 it risked a wider conflict.
“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.”
The withdrawal of his party from government leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a thin one-seat majority in Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset — controlling just 61 of 120 seats. As he resigned, Liberman called for elections to be held as soon as possible.
All eyes are now on Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Israel’s Jewish Home party, another right-wing politician who has called for a stronger military response to Gaza. Bennett, who has a fractious relationship with Netanyahu, is demanding to take Liberman’s place or his party will leave the coalition, according to senior officials in his party.
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 in Gaza, destroying several buildings.
The cease-fire announced by Hamas Tuesday night was still holding Wednesday even though there was no official Israeli confirmation it had been accepted. Residents of the southern Israeli communities have protested what they called the government’s capitulation.
Demonstrations celebrating the cease-fire as a victory against Israel were held in Gaza on Tuesday night. Hamas then described Liberman’s announcement as another win. “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 Hamas had succeeded in “creating a political shake-up in the occupation.”
Liberman said his resignation comes after weeks of disagreement with Netanyahu over a course of action on how to handle ongoing tensions with the coastal Palestinian enclave, whose rulers have called for Israel’s destruction.
Last week Israel facilitated the transfer of $15 million in Qatari cash 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 growing humanitarian crisis in the territory.
It 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 on Sunday that the process 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 held differences of opinion. “I did not agree to allow Qatari money to enter [into Gaza],” he said. “I had to allow it only after the prime minister announced it.”
His stance on Gaza may give Liberman a political boost ahead of elections. The cease-fire deal was deeply unpopular in Israeli communities around Gaza, where groups of protesters held demonstrations following the cease-fire announcement. People burned tires on the main road into the city of Sderot on Tuesday evening and demonstrators also blocked the main commercial crossing into Gaza on Wednesday.
Last week, high school students from the area marched to Jerusalem to protest the failure to reach a long-term solution.
Liberman’s departure makes it more likely that Netanyahu will call for new elections to shore up his support as leader. Political analysts and media commentators have long suspected him of wanting to hold elections before his full term in office ends in another year.
With his right-wing coalition looking increasingly unstable, a win sooner rather than later might also help distract attention from the ongoing criminal investigations against him, which look set to bring an indictment that could possibly lead to a very public trial.
Netanyahu, who in recent days stated he does not believe there is a diplomatic solution to Gaza and has, at the same time resisted military action, held a marathon meeting with his security cabinet, including Liberman, through much of the day Tuesday. A meager 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.
Israeli officials’ reluctance to acknowledge a cease-fire underscores the delicate balancing act they are facing as they try to reach a long-term agreement with Hamas.
Israel and Hamas have fought three deadly wars in 10 years, and flare-ups are becoming 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, the area that 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.”