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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Israel’s war cabinet in turmoil after Benny Gantz resignation. What happens now?


On Sunday, Benny Gantz — the leader of National Unity, Israel’s second-largest political party — resigned from the country’s ruling government. His decision made headlines, but its actual effects on the war in Gaza and Israel’s political future remain unclear.

Gantz’s departure was not a surprise. In mid-May, he set out an ultimatum: Either Netanyahu lays out a clear and plausible plan to end the war in Gaza, or Gantz quits the government on June 8. Netanyahu did not do so, and Gantz followed through on his threat (with the announcement delayed a day by Israel’s Saturday raid in Gaza that freed four hostages and killed over 200 Palestinians).

“Netanyahu prevents us from progressing to real victory,” Gantz said in his exit speech.

In the short term, this resignation is likely of little practical consequence.

Though Gantz is correct that Israel’s lack of a defined endgame is strategically disastrous, he simply didn’t have enough influence inside the government to force Netanyahu to adopt one. Indeed, the prime minister still has enough seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to remain in power even after Gantz’s resignation — meaning that there will be no immediate change in government.

To make a truly meaningful change, Gantz and his allies in the opposition would need to persuade five Knesset members to leave the current governing coalition and vote to call new elections. It’s possible that could happen, but there are no guarantees.

Were the government to fall, it would be a really big deal. It’s arguably the most plausible scenario by which the war could end. And we’re definitely somewhat closer to that reality than we were with Gantz in government.

How much closer? We’ll soon find out.

Prior to October 7, Gantz was the leader of Israel’s opposition. He coordinated a broad swath of parties, ranging from the right to the far left, in blocking Netanyahu’s efforts to seize control of Israel’s judiciary and to do potentially fatal damage to Israeli democracy. Opposing Netanyahu — as well as his government of extreme rightists and ultra-Orthodox religious hardliners — was Gantz’s central reason for being in politics.

After Hamas attacked, Gantz and National Unity joined the government on an emergency basis. Part of the agreement was that Gantz would be one of three members of Israel’s “war cabinet”: an ad hoc body that would make big-picture war decisions collectively. The other two were Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a relatively moderate member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who had opposed the judicial overhaul from within.

From Gantz’s point of view, being part of the war cabinet was worth partnering with the hated Netanyahu. In this arrangement, he and Gallant could check Netanyahu’s far-right allies and shape Israel’s policy for the better.

“We [joined] because we knew it was a bad government,” Gantz said in his exit speech. “The people of Israel …needed unity and support like they needed air to breathe.”

Over the months, the limits of this (always questionable) theory have become apparent. As much as he has tried, Gantz has been unable to push Netanyahu toward a clear and plausible theory for ending the war and the political situation in Gaza afterward.

While Netanyahu can survive without Gantz, he cannot survive without the extreme right Religious Zionism party. This faction is inveterately opposed to the only feasible scenario for a non-Hamas postwar Gaza government — putting some kind of Palestinian government in charge of the Strip. Instead, they want Netanyahu to announce that Israel would reoccupy Gaza and rebuild Jewish settlements on its land.

Netanyahu cannot endorse such a plan without a rebellion inside his Likud party; Gallant has publicly said he opposes any reoccupation. But Netanyahu also cannot lose Religious Zionism by endorsing Palestinian control over Gaza, the only other feasible alternative.

The only option for Netanyahu to keep his government together has been keeping the war going indefinitely — over Gantz’s objections. And that’s exactly what has happened. Ultimately, Gantz felt he could no longer participate in a government so blatantly putting Netanyahu’s political interests over Israel’s national interests.

Why Gantz’s resignation doesn’t matter — yet

The very logic of Gantz’s resignation implies that, in the immediate term, it is largely an impotent act. He is basically admitting that he is not really shaping war policy at the most fundamental level and that he lacks the influence to change the government’s political calculation.

For now, that means Netanyahu will stay in office and keep waging a deadly and strategically dubious war. Palestinians will continue dying, and Gaza will continue burning, in the name of a “total defeat” of Hamas that still proves elusive. This nightmare will continue until until the coalition cracks or Netanyahu is forced out by some other means.

There is only one plausible way that Gantz’s resignation in particular could hasten the collapse of Netanyahu’s government: by triggering defections from Gallant and others on the more centrist side of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Traditionally, Likud was Israel’s leading center-right party. In the past few years of Netanyahu, it has undergone a trajectory similar to the Republican Party under Donald Trump: a lurch to the radical right. However, some more traditionally minded Likudniks remain in the party’s Knesset delegation — and Gallant is their leading figure.

If managing Netanyahu and the war without Gantz proves intolerable to this faction, it’s possible they could rebel. This would entail voting with Gantz and the other coalition parties in a parliamentary motion to dissolve the government and schedule new elections. If elections do happen, polling suggests Gantz is heavily favored to become the next prime minister.

What does any of this mean for the Gaza conflict’s future?

If Gantz’s departure does trigger a broader exodus from Netanyahu’s government, such a change would definitely matter — and could potentially be transformative.

In the immediate term, Gantz is more likely to accept the American-backed ceasefire deal — which includes a hostage-for-prisoners swap between Israel and Hamas. In the longer term, he’s more likely to accept Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. In the even longer term, he’s more likely to strike a deal with Saudi Arabia to make “concrete steps” toward Palestinian statehood in exchange for Saudi diplomatic recognition of Israel.

But we’re still quite a few “ifs” away from all of that. We don’t know what Gallant and his like-minded figures inside Likud are thinking — or how the next few weeks and months of a Gantz-less government will change their minds.

So right now, the world is basically in a holding pattern. Gantz’s resignation doesn’t matter much at present, and might not matter at all in the long run. But if events go a certain way, it could mark the beginning of the end of the Gaza war.

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