Israel's new defence minister champion of settlers

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

Through a long military career, Mr 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.

However, 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, Mr Yaalon made no secret of his ambition to become defence minister since joining the right-wing Likud and entering politics in November 2008. Hailed by party leader Benjamin Netanyahu as "the country's premier soldier", Mr 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 Mr Ehud Barak getting the job.

Mr 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 Mr Netanyahu after urging the premier to resist United States demands for a settlement freeze.

As defence minister, Mr 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.

But from a military perspective, Mr 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 Mr Netanyahu's inner ministerial circle of nine, and urged restraint as talk of a possible strike on Teheran's facilities raged last year.