Israel's war cabinet divided over Gaza but Netanyahu withstands challenge

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant this week criticised the Prime Minister's vision for post-war Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confers with his war cabinet Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, right, during a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, in October last year. AFP
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Rifts are growing in Israel’s war cabinet as the Gaza war turns into a potential stalemate, strengthening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rivals.

However, the growing number of critics have no immediate prospect of dislodging Mr Netanyahu from power, western diplomats and a political observer said on Thursday.

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed about 1,100 Israeli civilians and ushered in the devastating seven-month conflict has led to a unity government and war cabinet.

The move aimed to show that Israel's divided ruling elite can together focus on the so-far elusive goal of neutralising Hamas, a militant group supported by Iran.

Other threats, including Lebanese Hezbollah, a militia far more powerful than Hamas, and Iran – which directly attacked Israel for the first time on April 13 – underlined the need for political unity.

The war cabinet comprises three heavyweights: Mr Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, the former head of the army, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

Mr Gantz and Mr Gallant are seen as less accommodating towards Israeli's religious right, and more focused on ties with Washington. This is in addition to their distaste for Mr Netanyahu, a more populist leader with political durability, despite having been at the centre of continuing corruption allegations.

More seriously, there has been growing anger at the Prime Minister arising from the shock that Israeli communities were overrun by Hamas on his watch.

Domestically, he had sold himself as a leader who would strengthen Israel's security. Internationally, Mr Netanyahu is facing even less acceptance.

“When you want a viable solution in the long term it is important to have a partner in the Israeli government,” Belgian Development Co-operation Minister Caroline Gennez said in Amman this week.

“So far, they don't seem to listen to international calls,” said Ms Gennez as she explained her government's push for a European weapons export ban on Israel.

The latest high-profile rift came this week, with the Defence Minister challenging Mr Netanyahu’s vision of long-term Israeli military rule in Gaza once Hamas is supposedly defeated.

Mr Gallant said in televised remarks that Israel should seek a friendly government in Gaza, as opposed to indefinite military rule.

Mr Netanyahu's maximalist positions have also made him a thorn in the side of the US administration, which appears to have opened a separate channel with Mr Gantz.

A western diplomat said that a “tipping point” for Mr Netanyahu could occur if Mr Gantz and Mr Gallant resigned together, combined with growing street protests against the Prime Minister.

But the diplomat cautioned that the Israeli government still has strong support from the United States and from Germany to ultimately eradicate Hamas. Mr Netanyahu and his two political foes in the war cabinet also “all need each other to survive” amid the lack of progress for Isreal in the war.

The US elections in November could also bring in former president Donald Trump, who is seen as more friendly to Mr Netanyahu, the diplomat said, and less in favour of a Palestinian state.

The war has revived calls by international powers for a two-state solution, which Washington has been pursuing with more interest in the last several months as part of a larger deal to normalise ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Normal ties between the two powers could alter Middle East dynamics to the disadvantage of Iran. But Saudi Arabia has signalled that it would not agree to it without Israel giving in to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Hazem Ayyad, a veteran Jordanian political commentator, said that Mr Gallant is positioning himself as the most politically astute among the top echelons of the power structure in Israel.

Mr Gallant is seeking to “keep one foot with the United States and one foot with the Israeli right-wing constituency”.

“He is appealing to the dreams of everyone,” Mr Ayyad said.

He pointed out that Mr Gallant is responding positively to the US by de facto agreeing to a role for the Palestinian Authority in a postwar Gaza.

By not endorsing a two-state solution, he is keeping a base among the Israeli hardliners, Mr Ayyad said.

But a senior western diplomat in Amman said that although Israel is fighting an “unwinnable” war, the intransigence of the Israeli right in recent decades may have already destroyed the possibility of any two-state solution.

The United States and other powers may have to examine a “one-state” scenario, under which the Arab population of Palestine would have equal rights, the diplomat said.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 3:17 PM