Israel's war cabinet gets tough on Netanyahu

Gallant finally addresses a long-evident truth: Netanyahu is the main obstacle to Israel's victory against Hamas. Meanwhile, Gantz gives him a deadline to state his 'day after' plan for Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 28, 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 28, 2023.

Israel's war cabinet gets tough on Netanyahu

Mounting frustrations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to discuss the 'day after' in Gaza burst into the public eye earlier this month when Defence Minister Yoav Gallant made a rare televised speech warning that Israel could be stuck for decades to come ruling Gaza militarily.

Israel’s austere defence minister laid it all out on the table. He warned that as long as Hamas maintained civilian control over Gaza, “it may rebuild its forces, and the IDF (Israeli army) will be forced to return and fight in places it has already fought”. This came as Israeli forces were fighting in Zeitoun, south of Gaza City, for the third time since the invasion of the Palestinian enclave.

Per Gallant, this meant that “the key is the creation of an alternative governing body”, which he said should be made of “Palestinian elements with international support”. Otherwise, the country would only have two “bad alternatives”: either a return to the Hamas rule in Gaza or an “Israeli military government in Gaza”—i.e. endless military occupation. Gallant warned that not making a decision was akin to picking one of those two “bad options” and that this would reduce Israel’s purported military achievement against Hamas to nothing.

Public indictment

This was a dire public indictment of PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy in Gaza. Gallant added that he had been bringing up the question of Israel’s long-term plans in Gaza “continuously” since 7 October in the cabinet and war cabinet, “with no answer”. In an even more invective directed at Netanyahu, he then called on the Israeli prime minister to “make a decision and declare that Israel will not have civilian control over Gaza, given that there will be no Israeli military government in Gaza, and to immediately promote a governing alternative to Hamas”.

A few days later, Benny Gantz, the third member of Israel’s decision-making “war cabinet” with Gallant and Netanyahu, doubled down on Gallant’s message. Gantz, a Netanyahu opponent who joined the Israeli government after the 7 October attacks, issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu: draft a plan to meet several key strategic goals by 8 June, or else I will leave the government and seek to trigger elections, said Gantz.

The conditions set by Gantz are in line with Gallant’s own demands and include an effort to create an alternative to Hamas’s own rule, with the formation of a governing mechanism with the involvement of American, European, Arab, and Palestinian elements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on October 28, 2023.

This criticism isn’t new. As Gallant hinted, it has been quietly expressed by high-ranking officers within the Israeli army for months. The Israeli military worries that without building a solid alternative to Hamas’s civilian government, the Israeli army will be stuck in an endless and deadly game of whack-a-mole, going after Hamas as it surges back after it withdraws from an area. Washington came to the same conclusion long ago and tried to steer Israel towards thinking more for the 'day after', but so far, it has been to no avail.

Read more: Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

The lack of any sort of plan is and will have dire consequences both for Palestinians and Israelis. An endless insurgency would prevent reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and would effectively mean Israel ends up fully re-occupying Gaza— whether it acknowledges it or not.

Militarily, this means that the Israeli army would have to maintain a significant presence in Gaza for the coming years if not decades. Estimates suggest that up to five divisions might be needed if Israel were to actually maintain a permanent presence in Gaza. Getting stuck in Gaza, as Iran showed more willingness to directly attack Israel and as the threat of a full-scale multi-front war is growing, would put Israel in a precarious position.

Stepping out of this cold military rationale, which motivated Gallant’s speech, I will add that a permanent military presence in Gaza would also damage the prospect for peace with the Palestinians, damage Israel’s already damaged relations with the few countries who chose to normalise ties with it and deter others from following suit. Internally, a permanent presence is also to rile up those who have always been pushing for a re-occupation of Gaza and the building of new settlements.

This would cement a vision of a different Israel, even more embattled, more radical, less democratic, stuck in infinite wars and violence and unable to engage diplomatically either with its neighbours or with the Palestinians. Israel would box itself in for decades to come.

Netanyahu defiant

But Netanyahu is undeterred. Moments after Gallant’s speech, the Israeli PM dashed Gallant’s comments in a message released moments later, saying he was “not prepared to replace Hamastan (Hamas rule) for Fatahstand (referring to the possible rule of Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority)”. He issued a similar statement criticising Gantz’s own ultimatum.

The Israeli military worries that without building a solid alternative to Hamas's civilian government, the Israeli army will be stuck in an endless and deadly game of whack-a-mole.

Netanyahu pointed to polls showing that 80% of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank supported the 7 October attack as part of a broader argument suggesting the Palestinian Authority was no better than Hamas. The Israeli PM said that as long as Hamas is not defeated, "no other actor will come to rule Gaza, and certainly not the Palestinian Authority".

This is the exact opposite of the view held and expressed by Gallant (and much of the Israeli security apparatus), namely that Hamas's defeat will never come without a civilian leg of the campaign aimed at providing an alternative to the Islamist group's iron-fist rule.

Along with his policy of "total victory", Netanyahu is also promoting a policy of "total inflexibility" when it comes to any step towards expanded Palestinian control, peace talks, or a Palestinian State—hoping that this inflexibility will win him back the hearts of right-wing Israelis.

For Israelis, Defence Minister Gallant's speech as well as the following rebuttal by Prime Minister Netanyahu and calls for his dismissal, had a sense of déjà vu. This is the second time Gallant warns about impending security risks tied to Netanyahu's decisions.

Last year, Gallant had called for a pause in the PM's judiciary overhaul, citing tangible security risks—a call that sounds prescient a year on. Gallant was promptly dismissed, prompting a surge in spontaneous protests that eventually forced Netanyahu to slow down his judicial blitz and reinstate Gallant.

This year, again, Netanyahu's allies are calling for the dismissal of Gallant. Chief among them is far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who would benefit most if Netanyahu were to dismiss both Gallant and Gantz, as Netanyahu would then have to rely even more heavily on his far-right allies. A torrent of criticism has come from the right-wing camp, accusing Gallant and Gantz of caving to US pressure, rewarding terror, and being nothing short of a traitor.

Criticism was particularly harsh against Gallant because the defence minister is still a member of Netanyahu's party, Likud. Some speculated Gallant may have ambitions of his own, but the truth might be simpler: Gallant is simply echoing mounting frustrations from the Israeli security apparatus, which has come to see Netanyahu himself as one of the main obstacles to a "total victory" against Hamas—the same victory Netanyahu keeps claiming is just around the corner.

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