Israeli war cabinet: Imminent collapse?

Shadi Mohsen, Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

The cracks are surfacing in the Israeli war cabinet formed after the Hamas attack on 7 October. Disputes between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former defence minister Benny Gantz and current Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have raised questions about the stability of this government.

Israeli protesters hold placards during an anti-government rally calling for its resignation, in Tel
Israeli protesters hold placards during an anti-government rally calling for its resignation, in Tel Aviv (photo: AFP)


What are the implications of this for the situation in Gaza and forthcoming political developments in Israel?

The mounting tensions were palpable when both Gantz and Gallant turned down Netanyahu’s invitation to hold a press conference with him on 30 December. Their empty seats were visible on the screen.

The two ministers reiterated why they refused to take part in the press conference in the last meeting of the war conference on 7 January: Netanyahu still refuses to discuss the “day after,” i.e., the political plans for when the war against Gaza ends.

A second reason was the prime minister’s refusal to officially announce when the third phase of the war would begin. There are also differences over the assessment of the situation in southern Lebanon and how Israel should respond. Both Gantz and Gallant oppose widening the scope of the conflict.

At another level, the current Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi came under attack from the far-right ministers in the Netanyahu government over his plan to form a committee to investigate the Israeli defence and intelligence failures that opened the way to the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation.

According to information leaked to an Israeli newspaper, Halevi planned to hand Gantz a copy of a memorandum he had sent to Netanyahu prior to 7 October warning of a possible attack by Hamas. Reports in the press suggest that the far-right ministers’ attacks on the chief of staff had been coordinated beforehand with Netanyahu who only had to give the signal.

The government’s relationship with the Israeli public is also deteriorating and Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted. Only 20 per cent of Israelis believe that he can continue the war and achieve victory.

Before the assassination of the Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in Lebanon the figure was only 16 per cent.

The question of the Israeli hostages with Hamas offers a clearer gauge of the relationship between the government and the Israeli public. In this respect, 64 per cent of Israelis have no confidence in Netanyahu’s ability to secure their release.

The sentiment led family members of the hostages to rally outside Gantz’s house demanding he step in directly to ensure the prisoner swap with Hamas succeeds.

At least two significant factors must be taken into account to answer this question. One is whether Gantz will act on his earlier threat to quit the unity government. The former defence minister is also a prominent leader of the opposition bloc in the Knesset.

He is also a key component of the war cabinet as his functions include presenting military position papers and plans regarding the war on Gaza and offering technical advice on military tactics for the combat operations to the chief-of-staffs.

The differences between him and Netanyahu over various aspects of the war, including financing it, had reached such a point that he felt it necessary to threaten to resign from the war cabinet. The cabinet, he said, has strayed from the reason it was formed, which was to conduct the war, not to conduct politics and use the war for personal glory.

That Gantz did not appear for the above-mentioned press conference or attend closed sessions of the war cabinet suggests that he might act on his threat. If he does, his resignation could trigger a domino effect that could extend to various ministers. Even Gallant himself might be tempted to resign after the attacks against Israeli army leaders and the impact this has had on Israeli confidence in the military establishment.

Another factor relates to announcing when the third stage of the war will start. On 30 December, the Israeli army withdrew several of its brigades from northern Gaza. The step was interpreted as a sign that the third operational stage had begun, even though the Netanyahu government had not officially announced it.

The troop withdrawal was accompanied by a fierce political campaign directed against the Israeli army. The army, for its part, just announced on Monday the official start of the third phase which calls for the withdrawal of heavy military equipment from northern Gaza and the use of special forces tactics to achieve specific tasks, which the Israeli press called “surgical operations.”

The announcement followed remarks by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, from Amman, that Israel would soon announce the beginning of the third phase. This suggests that Washington has begun to coordinate exclusively with the Israeli army to bypass Netanyahu and the need for the war cabinet’s approval. This explains why it was the army command, and not the prime minister, who made the announcement.

It thus appears that the war cabinet’s influence is declining because of its insistence on mixing partisan and personal political ends with military matters, which is at the heart of the friction in the war cabinet.

So, what would happen if the war cabinet collapsed if Gantz resigned? For one thing, this could lead to early elections and influence their outcome. Gantz is still at the forefront in public opinion polls, the latest of which shows that if elections were held now, his National Unity Party would win 35 seats, up from its current 12, while Netanyahu’s Likud would plummet to only 15, down from its current 37.

Netanyahu’s declining popularity not only affects him and his prospects for remaining prime minister, but also the future of his party and the far-right religious parties that have been riding on Likud’s popularity. If Likud, the engine of the far right, goes under, its small extremist allies will go with it.

One can imagine, here, two possibilities. One is that the religious parties jump from Netanyahu’s sinking ship and call for early elections to forestall further deterioration in their popularity and status. The other is for Netanyahu to appoint a successor as head of Likud. This would most likely be Yisrael Katz who Netanyahu has just appointed as foreign minister to better groom him to head the party.

Mounting tensions between Israel and the US also play a part here. A main reason why Netanyahu included Gantz in the war cabinet was to give the US the impression that Israel’s political and military perceptions of how to conduct the war on Gaza would reflect a consensus from across the Israeli political spectrum. If Gantz, the leader of the main opposition party, steps down, the US will begin to question the degree of consensus on Gaza.

As a result, Washington and Netanyahu’s outlooks on the “day after” will grow further apart, regarding who will govern Gaza and the role the Palestinian Authority will play there, the limits on Israel’s military role after the war, and how to control other variables connected with regional security equations, namely the Houthis, Hizbullah, and Iran.

Netanyahu is fully aware of the risks if the war cabinet collapsed. It would mean early elections and heightened tension with Washington at a delicate time as the war shifts to a third phase and attention turns to the future of Gaza after the war. To avert collapse, should Gantz resign, Netanyahu might try to expand the war cabinet, adding some ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich, the current minister of finance and adjunct minister in the Ministry of Defence, or Likud member Gideon Sa’ar.

It is also possible to envision Netanyahu launching military operations both in the West Bank and in southern Lebanon, catering to the hawkish desires of the religious parties in the government coalition and thereby forestalling their possible desertion from the sinking ship

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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