Israel's new defence minister champion of settlers

AFP , Sunday 17 Mar 2013

Israel's new DM, Moshe Yaalon, is known for his opposition to withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and freezing of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank

Israel's ex-armed forces chief and new Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon walks in a visit to the Kissufim crossing in the Gaza strip, February 16, 2005 (Photo: Reuters)

Israel's new Defence Minister Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon is a military veteran and staunch rightwinger known for his support of the Jewish settler movement, but who has taken a more moderate stance on Iran.

Through a long military career, Yaalon burnished his image as a hardliner who backs the idea of a Greater Israel encompassing all of the occupied Palestinian territories.

He made a name for himself by opposing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and has spoken out forcefully against any freeze on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

But while scornful of Palestinian statehood aspirations, the bespectacled 62-year-old has shown signs of caution over committing the military to combat, including plans for a recent ground operation in Gaza.

A former chief of staff who headed the military at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, Yaalon made no secret of his ambition to become defence minister since joining the rightwing Likud and entering politics in November 2008.

Hailed by party leader Benjamin Netanyahu as "the country's premier soldier," Yaalon had been expected to take the defence portfolio when Likud became the ruling party in 2009, but ended up becoming strategic affairs minister with Ehud Barak getting the job.

Yaalon has never been a stranger to controversy. Shortly after becoming chief of staff in 2002, he described the Palestinian uprising as a "cancer" and said he was applying "chemotherapy."

He has referred to Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog as a "virus" and his overt support for the settlements has sometimes embarrassed the government.

In August 2009, he earned a sharp rebuke from Netanyahu after urging the premier to resist US demands for a settlement freeze.

"I, for one, am not afraid of the Americans. There are issues on which one should say 'that's enough'," he said, insisting that Jews have a rightful claim to all of the Land of Israel -- a term which includes the Palestinian territories.

"I believe that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel for ever," he said.

As defence minister, Yaalon will enjoy huge power to advance the settler movement, with both new construction and the dismantling of existing outposts unauthorised by the government falling under his authority.

"We are very much concerned about the prospect of him as defence minister," Peace Now's Hagit Oran told AFP.

"The role of the minister of defence is crucial for settlement issues because every step must be approved by the minister and often can be done without the knowledge of other people in government," she said.

But from a military perspective, Yaalon has demonstrated caution.

During Israel's eight-day confrontation with Hamas militants in Gaza last November, he counselled against escalating the air campaign into a ground operation.

And while adamant that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, he stood out as a moderate within Netanyahu's inner ministerial circle of nine, and urged restraint as talk of a possible strike on Tehran's facilities raged last year.

Born in 1950 in the northern port city of Haifa, Yaalon performed his compulsory military service between 1968 and 1971, returning to active duty as a paratrooper during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

After serving in an elite commando unit in the 1970s and 80s, Yaalon became military intelligence chief in the mid-1990s, then head of the army's central command with responsibility for the West Bank, before being named chief of staff.

Yaalon headed the military for three years, but following his opposition to the Gaza pullout in 2005, his appointment was not extended for the usual fourth year.

He is married with three children.

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