Israel's shaky emergency alliance

Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet
How long will it last? Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and opposition politician Benny Gantz (image: Abir Sultan via REUTERS)

Opposition politician Benny Gantz has been working together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the Hamas attacks. But it's only a matter of time before he pulls out of the war cabinet

By Peter Münch

Israel is at war and consistent with facts and semantics, its fate is now in the hands of a war cabinet.  But there's also still the coalition formed just over a year ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with ultra-Orthodox parties and right-wing extremist troublemakers. This double structure recently prompted an Israeli commentator to remark that the country is living with bigamy. The conclusion: two marriages – but zero love.

The convoluted domestic policy situation is due to the fact that opposition politician Benny Gantz and his party, which bears the programmatic name National Unity, joined an emergency government just a few days after the disastrous Hamas attacks of 7 October. 

This was explicitly an act of responsibility, designed to send out a signal both internally and to the outside world. After a deep rift caused by months of mass protests against a planned judicial reform, Israel should stand united in this war. Gantz announced he would stay for as long as he was needed and able to exert influence. But now he must be wondering whether he's not just being exploited as a fig leaf.

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Scepticism over declared war goals

Cracks in the war cabinet's veneer are becoming increasingly apparent. There were recent heated exchanges over the new budget, which despite the staggering cost of the war, still managed to fulfil the pecuniary interests of the religious groups and settlers represented in the coalition. Gantz had harsh words to say about a "huge gap between the budget that the State of Israel needs, and the budget approved by the cabinet".

He is however unlikely to leave the war cabinet – a triumvirate that also includes Netanyahu and Defence Minister – over domestic policy disagreements such as these. It's the key issue of military strategy that could soon prove the straw that breaks the camel's back. After more than 100 days, Israel is still a long way off reaching its declared goals in the conflict. And the debate over whether these goal posts should therefore be moved flared up a while ago.

Netanyahu presents as an unflinching figure. He repeats on a loop that fighting in Gaza will continue until "total victory" over Hamas. He also says that military pressure is the only way to secure the release of the more than 130 hostages. The time frame for the attainment of both goals could be several months and may even extend into next year, he said.

But Gantz and his party colleague Gadi Eizenkot, both of whom have pertinent experience as army chiefs of staff, are becoming increasingly vocal with their doubts over this course of action. "Anyone talking about total victory isn't telling the truth," Eizenkot explained in a recent TV interview. 

Gantz points to the dilemma that Hamas can hardly be destroyed and the hostages freed at the same time. He is therefore calling for the hostage issue to be prioritised over everything else, even if this means making far-reaching concessions such as a longer break in the fighting and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

A Prime Minister playing for time

But if Netanyahu were to make concessions like these, far-right partners have threatened to break with the coalition. The Prime Minister would then have to choose which partner to go with. Instead, he's playing for time. He's not seizing the initiative on hostage negotiations and he's refusing – despite growing American pressure – to make any decisions over plans for the Gaza Strip after the war.

The calculation: as long as the fighting goes on, his power won't be questioned and he won't have to take responsibility for the failure of the state on 7 October. He coolly counters increasingly strident calls for new elections, some now hailing from the Gantz camp. This would be "irresponsible" in the middle of a war, he said. Such a move would destroy Israel's unity and play into the hands of the enemies, from Hamas to the puppet masters in Iran.

Gantz must now decide how much longer he's going to play this game. There are indications that his withdrawal from the war cabinet is only a matter of time, or rather of the right time. This would put an end to the bigamy and the fate of the nation would once again be solely in the hands of the right-wing religious government. It would then have to assume sole responsibility for the war in Gaza – and at the same time brace for mass protests on the home front.

Peter Munch 

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon