Gantz to meet Sunak as rift in Israeli war cabinet grows

Trip to the UK comes straight after a visit to Washington that provoked anger from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Benny Gantz visits Washington as rumours swirl of rift with Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Benny Gantz visits Washington as rumours swirl of rift with Benjamin Netanyahu
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Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz will head to London on Wednesday after spending two days meeting Washington power brokers on a trip that has infuriated his political rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Gantz will meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his London visit, The National has learned.

He is also due to meet UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

The Israeli leader of the centrist National Unity Party has seen his popularity rise in recent polls just as the far-right Mr Netanyahu's support plummets over his handling of the Israel-Gaza war.

Mr Gantz’s decision to defy the Prime Minister and travel to Washington may very well hint at fissures in the fragile war cabinet.

“It means that Gantz has decided that there's no point in hiding or camouflaging the deep differences that are in the war cabinet regarding Israeli policy, both with the Palestinians, geopolitical Middle East versus the United States,” Dan Avnon, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The National.

“It's not conventional, it's not normal, it's against protocol.”

While in Washington, Mr Gantz met Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other politicians.

When he travels to London on Wednesday, he will meet UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron, a source familiar with the trip told The National. A political source in London confirmed the trip and meeting will go ahead.

The visit adds to growing speculation that Israel’s closest allies are increasingly frustrated with Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence on the Gaza war, particularly regarding the desperate need to distribute more humanitarian aid in the strip.

“Far too many Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians have been killed. We need to get more aid in, we need to get hostages out,” Ms Harris told reporters as she met Mr Gantz.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Mr Blinken views the situation in Gaza as “unacceptable and unsustainable” and told Mr Gantz that Israel must act urgently to get more aid into the enclave.

Mr Gantz’s conversations in London will focus largely on the same issues discussed in Washington, the source said. Other meetings are being planned but remain unconfirmed.

Washington has been Israel’s biggest supporter in its war on Gaza, sending bombs and weaponry to the military and defending Israel's voice at the UN, including three vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire.

But with more than 30,500 people now killed in Gaza, according to local health authorities, President Joe Biden's administration has come under increasing pressure at home and abroad to curtail Israel's war efforts.

Mr Biden, a self-described Zionist, has to a large degree staked his presidency on the Israel-Gaza war. His stalwart defence of Israel, even as the death toll soars in Gaza, has seen him lose support from progressives and Arab Americans, key voting blocs, especially in the swing state of Michigan.

'The day after Bibi'

A source within the Israeli government suggested that the meeting with Lord Cameron would cover the issue of getting a ceasefire in place in Gaza.

It is also understood that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been instructed not to help facilitate the trip in any way, in a move labelled “incredibly petty”, by a leading academic.

“That shows you the level of leadership in the Netanyahu government,” said Yossi Mekelberg, of the Chatham House think tank. “But this trip is a clear sign both from Washington and London that they're starting to look at the day after Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

The Biden administration is pushing for a grand bargain that would include Palestinian statehood, security guarantees and recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia. Plans to recognise Palestine are firmly opposed by Mr Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader has repeatedly frustrated the Biden administration and slammed the door on a previous hostage deal that Washington had helped broker.

Israel also insisted it would conduct an eventual incursion into Rafah, which is hosting more than 1.4 million displaced Palestinians who have fled from elsewhere in the densely populated enclave.

Prof Mekelberg, alongside other Israeli political sources, told The National that Mr Biden was “furious” that Mr Netanyahu was “deliberately trying to harm or hinder the plans for the Biden administration’s plans for Gaza”.

The conclusion in the two capitals was that Mr Netanyahu was “not an ally or a partner” so they were now attempting to “look for the responsible adult” to work with in a postwar scenario.

“Gantz is more open to peace negotiations and the Americans are fed up in dealing with Netanyahu,” Prof Mekelberg said.

“There is also the policy issue, in that they know there is a danger for the Middle East to implode if he continues being prime minister and supported by the very far right.”

Enia Krivine, senior director for the Foundation for Defence of Democracies’ Israel Programme, described Mr Gantz's travels as a “political stunt”.

“Going around the Prime Minister in the way he did makes Bibi look weak, which is not something that any Prime Minister wants to feel during wartime,” she said.

There is speculation that both Mr Gantz, a former chief of staff for Israel’s armed forces, and his colleague Gadi Eisenkot might quit the five-man war cabinet if Mr Netanyahu fails to deliver a ceasefire.

“If they do leave they will have to justify it with some fairly serious criticisms, because otherwise there's no reason for them to leave,” said a political source inside Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

He added that something might have changed within the war cabinet with a dispute over how the war was being run as well the issue of Mr Netanyahu’s “conflict of interest” in running the government while facing criminal charges over alleged corruption. Mr Netanyahu strongly denies the allegations.

There is also a view both in Israel and the West that Mr Gantz is most likely to become the next prime minister if Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition collapses.

“Gantz is outpolling Netanyahu three-to-one on suitability to be prime minister,” the Knesset source said. However, there was no guarantee that the coalition would collapse if he and Mr Eisenkot left the war cabinet.

Prof Mekelberg suggested that Mr Gantz, whom he regarded politically as “midfield holding position player”, was someone who was “inclined to reason” with an ability to build trust with the White House and Westminster.

“President Biden’s plan for postwar Gaza war would be much more doable under Gantz than under Netanyahu, which probably is not at all,” he said.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 9:57 AM