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Israel defense minister quits, government's survival at risk

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Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has urged the government to strike a harsh blow against Gaza's Hamas rulers, quit after the security Cabinet decided Tuesday to accept a truce to halt a two-day flareup in fighting.

[TEL AVIV] Israel's defence minister resigned and pulled his faction out of the government Wednesday, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition with a precarious parliamentary majority and threatening its survival. Markets fell.

Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has urged the government to strike a harsh blow against Gaza's Hamas rulers, quit after the security Cabinet decided Tuesday to accept a truce to halt a two-day flareup in fighting. He also called for early elections.

The cease-fire, and attempts to reach a long-term truce are "a capitulation to terrorism," Mr Liberman said at a news conference. "There's no other way to look at it." He also faulted Mr Netanyahu's decision to allow Qatar to transfer US$15 million to Gaza to ease the dire humanitarian situation there, saying the money would go to support families of militants who attacked Israel.

The departure of his Yisrael Beitenu party from the coalition leaves Mr Netanyahu with the narrowest possible majority, 61 of 120 parliamentary seats. The eight-seat Jewish Home party will also pull out of the government if its chairman Naftali Bennett, a rival of Netanyahu's, doesn't get the defense portfolio, senior party officials said.

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Jewish Home's withdrawal would strip the prime minister of his parliamentary majority. A spokesman for his Likud party, Yonatan Ulrich, said Mr Netanyahu plans to take over the defense portfolio for the immediate future.

The shekel was down 0.17 per cent against the dollar at 2.03 pm. Israel's main stock gauge, the TA-35, extended losses to 0.9 per cent, the lowest level of Wednesday's session.

Mr Liberman's resignation follow months of speculation about whether the prime minister will dissolve the government and call elections, now scheduled for November 2019, earlier.

A two-year-old corruption probe against Mr Netanyahu is inching toward conclusion, with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit due to decide whether to indict him in three separate cases. Some commentators have reasoned that if the prime minister goes to early elections and wins big, it would be harder for Mr Mandelblit to take action against him.

Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has contended he's the victim of a leftist cabal out to bring down his conservative government. Polls have shown he'd win an early election.

Mr Liberman has had a volatile history with Netanyahu, joining forces then bolting several times in the two-plus decades in which their political careers have crossed. A defense hawk, he joined the government in May 2016 after Mr Netanyahu forced out his previous defence minister, Moshe Yaalon.

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