JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose Moshe Yaalon, a right-wing former armed forces chief, to be Israel’s defence minister on Sunday, saying his experience was needed to tackle challenges in a turbulent Middle East.
Yaalon, 62, belongs to Netanyahu’s Likud party and spent the past four years in his inner circle of ministers, publicly backing his reluctance to give up the occupied West Bank and make way for a Palestinian state.
The former general has also supported the premier’s threats to attack Iranian nuclear sites - though, behind closed doors, officials say he has urged Netanyahu to give U.S.-led diplomatic pressure on Tehran more time.
Yaalon has argued that with the rise of Hamas in the other Palestinian territory of Gaza, and of kindred Islamists in neighbouring Egypt and Syria, the Jewish state is at risk and must focus on defence before diplomacy.
“At such a decisive time for the security of the State of Israel, when the region all around us is stormy, it is important to have a man who is rich in experience, like Moshe Yaalon, in this post,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
He nominated Yaalon and other cabinet ministers two days after agreements were signed to form a new coalition government, which is expected to take office on Monday.
Danny Danon, a Likud lawmaker considered especially hawkish on the Palestinians, got the deputy defence portfolio.
In a Facebook statement, Danon said he would “preserve the values of the nationalist camp” - a likely reference to Israel’s West Bank settlements, which the defence ministry oversees.
The Palestinians and most world powers see the settlements as illegal and major obstacles to reviving peace negotiations.
Yaalon will replace Ehud Barak, who headed a centre-left party in the outgoing coalition and took over the defence ministry in 2007. Barak did not stand as a candidate in a January 22 national election.
Yaalon was vice prime minister in charge of strategic affairs before his latest appointment and served as armed forces chief from 2002 until 2005.
His period at the head of the armed forces was not extended after he opposed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that year.
Israel and Western powers fear Iran is working to develop the ability to build nuclear weapons - a charge dismissed by Tehran.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller