Netanyahu and Gantz discuss Israel unity government amid Gaza war

The main opposition leaders – former prime minister Yair Lapid and former defence minister Benny Gantz – have agreed in principle to join a unity government

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Ehud Barak (R) and military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz (2nd R) stand together after observing an earthquake drill in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Israel October 21, 2012. REUTERS/Nir Elias/File Photo
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Hopes for an Israeli emergency unity government were rising on Wednesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met former defence minister Benny Gantz, head of the opposition National Unity party.

Both sides were "finalising the details", Mr Gantz's office said in a statement without elaborating.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition has agreed to form an emergency unity government with opposition politicians after the deadliest Palestinian militant attack in Israeli history, his ruling Likud Party said on Tuesday.

The surprise attack by Hamas and allied groups against Israel caused at least 1,200 deaths, mostly civilians, and Israeli retaliatory bombing in Gaza, which has killed at least 850 Palestinians.

The majority of dead on both sides are civilian. Israel on Sunday formally declared a state of war.

The meeting had been delayed during arguments over the role of several far-right ministers in Mr Netanyahu's cabinet, who have been blamed for exacerbating tensions in the occupied West Bank.

The main opposition leaders, former prime minister Yair Lapid and Mr Gantz, had agreed in principle to join a unity government after the surprise attack on Saturday by Hamas, but both have made the exclusion of far-right ministers a condition of a wartime government.

A spokeswoman for Mr Gantz's party said she was optimistic there would be "good news" and that the party would unite with Mr Netanyahu to form an emergency government, but would not elaborate on the terms.

A meeting between Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu was scheduled for Tuesday evening but was delayed until Wednesday. The deal to pass an emergency unity government hinges on a formal agreement with Mr Gantz’s National Unity party and a deal is said to be close, according to a source from the party.

Calls for a united emergency government have been growing since the Hamas attack on Saturday. In his speech on Monday night, Mr Netanyahu called for a unity government without preconditions.

Mr Gantz, a former Israeli army chief of staff and defence minister, said he wants a smaller “war cabinet” to be established, including members of his party, but that is on condition far-right members of the current coalition, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, are pushed aside.

“"I’m guessing that a number of the fringe ministers such as Itamar Ben-Gvir will not be in the unity government. They may be pushed out or resign because they lose their portfolios. I don’t know about Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – he’s on the borderline, as he’s considered to be more competent and more politically realistic even though he’s so ideological,” Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, told The National.

On Saturday, just hours after the attack, opposition leader Mr Lapid said he had told Mr Netanyahu that he was willing to put political differences aside and "establish together with him a professional, limited emergency government, which will manage the difficult, complex and protracted campaign before us".

A source close to Mr Lapid's party said that the offer still stood if the emergency government was "narrow and professional", in reference to far-right members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition government.

Updated: October 11, 2023, 4:49 PM