Gantz threatens to quit unless Netanyahu commits to vision for Gaza

Minister accuses Israeli Prime Minister of 'cowardice' and avoiding key decisions on wartime strategy

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Cabinet minister Benny Gantz have publicly clashed over policy in recent weeks. Reuters
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Pressure to create a credible plan for post war Gaza was mounting on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend, as war cabinet member Benny Gantz threatened to quit the government.

Mr Gantz joined a coalition government with his National Unity Party in the aftermath of Hamas’ deadly October 7 surprise attack into southern Israel.

He said on Saturday evening that he would quit the government on June 8 if Mr Netanyahu did not back down from insisting on Israeli military control of Gaza in the event of Hamas’ defeat.

Last week, Mr Netanyahu said in an interview with CNBC that the Israeli army would retain security control of Gaza, implying some form of re-occupation.

Mr Gantz warned that Mr Netanyahu was allying with "zealots" who were taking Israel "into the abyss," in reference to his far-right allies, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister linked to violent extremists.

“While Israeli soldiers are displaying incredible bravery on the front, some of the people who sent them to battle are acting with cowardice and a lack of responsibility,” he said. "Crucial decisions were not made. The acts of leadership needed to guarantee victory were not made."

Presenting a six-point strategic plan for Gaza, Mr Gantz said Israel must have "security control" but formulate a plan for a government in the strip that would obviate the need to re-occupy Gaza.

A key point of his proposal includes the creation of “an international civilian governance mechanism for Gaza, including American, European, Arab and Palestinian elements — which will also serve as a basis for a future alternative that is not Hamas and is not [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas.”

Critics of Mr Netanyahu, including Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, say the Prime Minister has shown little interest in long term planning for the war-devastated enclave, risking a repeat of the security failures that led to October 7.

Both Mr Gantz’s speech and another on Wednesday by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant criticising the lack of a military plan in Gaza, were likely co-ordinated to bring pressure on Mr Netanyahu, political analysts told The National.

“It now appears that the two speeches are a co-ordinated effort to put the squeeze on Netanyahu and this pressure definitely counts for something,” said Richard Pater of Bicom, an Israeli think tank.

However, the war cabinet rift might not necessarily bring down the government and could possibly push it further to the right, he added.

“Mr Netanyahu can survive without them both as he’s got the numbers but then it becomes a hard right and rejectionist government and that’s not a comfortable look for Mr Netanyahu who likes to be in the middle.”

Criticism of Mr Netanyahu has also surged across Israel amid frozen negotiations to free about 100 hostages seized by Hamas from southern Israel on October 7, leading to a large protest movement demanding an end to the hostage crisis.

Mr Netanyahu’s coalition would be weakened to the point of only including his far-right allies if Mr Gantz steps down, leaving him with 64 seats in the 120 member Knesset.

Such a move could increase pressure on Mr Netanyahu, since Mr Gantz has been hosted this year by key Israeli allies including the US and UK, said to be courting the former minister of defence and briefly, prime minister under a coalition government in 2020.

Washington, which provided Israel with around $15 billion in aid this year, has grown increasingly impatient with Mr Netanyahu over his handling of the war, which recently saw the Prime Minister defy US pressure to halt a ground attack in Rafah. The operation there has led to more than 800,000 Palestinians fleeing the city.

The US repeatedly warned that a military operation in Rafah could cause enormous civilian casualties, after more than a million Palestinians sought shelter there as fighting raged in nearby towns such as Khan Younis. Mr Gantz's supporters see him as a more credible wartime leader than Mr Netanyahu because of his experience in senior military roles.

“A small minority took over the bridge of the Israeli ship, and is sailing it toward a wall of rocks,” Mr Gantz said on Saturday.

He said Mr Netanyahu’s lack of vision for post conflict scenarios in Gaza would lead to Israel’s defeat, and lamented the plight of hostages “undergoing the agonies of hell,” while “some of the politicians are thinking of themselves.”

“A war is only won with a clear and realistic strategic compass,” he warned, re-iterating the need for his six point plan to be implemented.

In a statement, Mr Netanyahu's office rejected Mr Gantz's proposals and criticisms, calling them "washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of war and defeat for Israel, abandoning most of the hostages, leaving Hamas intact and the establishment of a Palestinian state."

Ultimately the Israeli Prime Minister, who faces a possible corruption trial as soon as he leaves government, will attempt to accommodate both the Israeli far-right and growing opposition, which could include Mr Gantz, or at least play them off against each other.

Meanwhile, he is still looking to rehabilitate his shattered political reputation post October 7, including through a possible historic diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia.

But as an arch political survivor – he has been prime minister for a total of 17 years – Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to make a substantial move that will threaten his position.

“Both Mr Gantz and Mr Gallant are saying forget about your personal considerations and think of the country,” said Mr Pater. “It’s a question of whether he will listen to them.”

Robert Tollast contributed to this report from Abu Dhabi

Updated: May 19, 2024, 8:56 AM