- Associated Press - Sunday, March 17, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday appointed a hard-line former military chief as the country’s new defense minister.

Moshe Yaalon, a former army commando, has said Iran’s suspect nuclear program is Israel’s top security concern, though he has been vague about whether Israel might carry out a military strike on Iran. He also has voiced skepticism about the chances for reaching peace with the Palestinians.

Mr. Yaalon, widely known by his nickname, “Bogie,” was Israel’s military chief from 2002 to 2005. He oversaw Israel’s army operations during the bloody years of the second Palestinian uprising when Palestinian bombers killed Israeli civilians and Israel’s army conducted military incursions into Palestinian cities.

Mr. Yaalon also prepared Israel’s military for the country’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He did not support the decision to remove Israel’s military installations and settlements from the Palestinian territory, and he retired shortly before the withdrawal took place. After retiring, Mr. Yaalon briefly served as an expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

For the past four years, Mr. Yaalon served as both vice premier and strategic affairs minister in Israel’s outgoing government. In those positions, Mr. Yaalon was a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet, which dealt with sensitive matters and played a leading role in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel believes that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon — a charge that Tehran denies. Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly has hinted that Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if it concludes that international sanctions and diplomacy have failed to curb the Iranian nuclear program. Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a mortal threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction and its support for anti-Israel militant groups.

“The most dangerous threat today is the nuclear threat on the part of Iran, which is working to achieve regional hegemony,” Mr. Yaalon said in a recent interview. “It is impossible to deal with the Middle Eastern instability without dealing with this threat.”

“It must be at the top of our priorities,” even ahead of the conflict with the Palestinians, he said in the interview. “We need to prepare for defending ourselves.”

Mr. Yaalon has been vague about whether Israel would strike Iran on its own. He is believed to favor military action only if it is coordinated with the U.S. The topic is expected to be high on the agenda when President Obama visits Israel later this week.

Mr. Yaalon takes a hard-line view toward the Palestinian. He has said he believes the Palestinian leadership is not serious about wanting peace with Israel, and he is cool to making concessions to the Palestinians.

Among other security challenges Israel faces is the chaotic situation in Egypt’s Sinai desert, where al-Qaeda-influenced militants are believed to be operating near the Israeli border; the Hamas militant group’s control of the neighboring Gaza Strip; the civil war in Syria; and the activities of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement to reporters that Mr. Yaalon has the experience to lead the country’s defense during a “decisive period for the security of Israel, as the region around us rages.”

Mr. Yaalon will replace Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is retiring.

Israel’s new government is expected to be sworn this week, ahead of Mr. Obama’s arrival.

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