Tensions In Israel War Cabinet As Gaza Conflict Rages

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are in Israel

Israel’s war cabinet, seen as a symbol of national unity in the war against Hamas, has been shaken by political rivalry between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Benny Gantz, analysts say.

A former military chief and ex-defence minister, Gantz visited Washington Monday before heading to London on Wednesday for high-level talks in a trip which was not authorised by Netanyahu.

It served to highlight the deep divisions between the two men as international pressure mounts on Israel over the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, with the war entering its sixth month.

Gantz’s visit to the United States — Israel’s staunchest ally — shows that “his level of trust in Netanyahu is very low,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

It demonstrates he wanted to present an alternative view to Washington, he added.

Gantz, who left the political opposition to join the war cabinet after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attacks in southern Israel, has been at odds with Netanyahu on how to win the release of hostages and draw up an exit strategy from the conflict.

But his trip to Washington has raised attention in Israel, and drew strong criticism from ministers of Netanyahu’s right-wing party Likud.

“It looks like some kind of subversion,” said Transport Minister Miri Regev, adding Gantz is “working behind the prime minister’s back.”

Dudi Amsalem, Israel’s regional cooperation minister and Netanyahu ally, said that Gantz had joined the wartime government “to create unity in an emergency, not to be a Trojan horse”.

“Tensions were always there,” between these “two people who hate each other,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Five members make up the war cabinet, with Netanyahu, Gantz and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant seen as the main players.

Hazan said Gantz travelled to Washington and London in a bid to demonstrate that he has the right profile to be a potential future prime minister.

He met with US Vice President Kamala Harris a day after she delivered some of the most stinging US criticism of Israel since the war began calling for an “immediate ceasefire”.

She also voiced the US administration’s concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and “urged Israel to take additional measures” to increase the flow of aid.

Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas after its unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel has also said it believes 130 of the original 250 captives taken by Hamas in the attack remain held in the besieged territory, but that 31 have been killed.

The withering Israeli bombardment of Gaza has left more than 30,700 people dead in five months of war, and caused widespread destruction. UN agencies have also warned of the growing threat of famine as aid has struggled to reach those in need in Gaza.

US President Joe Biden and Netanyahu are in an “open conflict” as the White House presses the Israeli leader not to “continue with a massive civilian casualties in Gaza” and “without knowing what to do the day after” the war, said Hazan.

“Gantz is not where Netanyahu is, he is closer to the American position” on the war’s aftermath, said Hazan.

He’s a “more comfortable counterpart” for Washington, “is more open to dialogue with moderate partners in the region” and over the role that the Palestinian Authority could play in Gaza after the war, Plesner added.

Last week Gantz applauded Gallant’s proposal to reform military service in order to include ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are currently exempted for religious reasons.

But the announcement shook Israeli politics to its core and was perceived in some Israeli media as a challenge from Gallant to Netanyahu, with both belonging to the same party.

The proposal was a political bombshell and forces the prime minister into a tight corner, as the two main parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews could topple his precarious coalition at any moment.

Netanyahu is working on “avoiding an early election” that would benefit Gantz at any cost, said Plesner.

Recent polls suggest that if there is an election, Gantz’s party will win the largest number of seats.

“If there is one issue that might get out of hand and lead to a collapse of the coalition (it) is the issue of recruitment of ultra-Orthodox”, Plesner said.

Gantz has to time his exit from the government in a way that makes Israelis feel he is “looking out for Israel’s interests” and create a perception that “Netanyahu is only looking at his personal interests,” said Hazan.

Gantz, seen during a visit by Antony Blinken to Tel Aviv, is considered closer to the United States than Netanyahu
The exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service is deeply controversial in Israel
The exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service is deeply controversial in Israel
Gantz's trip to Washington has drawn strong criticism from allies of Netanyahu
Gantz’s trip to Washington has drawn strong criticism from allies of Netanyahu

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