Gantz exits, but the road to replace Netanyahu is still long

The former defence minister leaves the war cabinet after Netanyahu fails to submit a 'day after' plan for Gaza. But his departure does not guarantee Netanyahu's government will collapse.

A file photo shows an election poster depicting Blue and White party leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel.
REUTERS/Corinna Kern
A file photo shows an election poster depicting Blue and White party leader, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Gantz exits, but the road to replace Netanyahu is still long

If there is one thing Netanyahu has learned from his long career as Israel’s leading political figure, it’s that timing is everything. When opportunities are there, seize them. But more importantly, if the circumstances are against you, drag your feet. Postpone, kick the can down the road—and kick it as far as possible.

Delay and wait for better circumstances, even if that means making the crisis even worse. If you just wait, the stars may align once again. This is a simple strategy but one that has saved Netanyahu many times and one he hopes to use again to extricate himself from the worst crisis he has ever faced. Many have called Netanyahu “finished", but he just waited them out.

In late May, the embattled Israeli prime minister received the first sign that his strategy may be working. A poll showed that, for the first time, Israelis preferred Netanyahu over his main challenger, Benny Gantz. Gantz entered the government in October but was, at the time, signalling his decision to resign. Until this specific poll, Gantz had been leading polls by a large margin. In December last year, Gantz was far ahead of Netanyahu, with 45% of Israelis preferring the former Israeli defence minister, while only 27% of respondents saw Netanyahu as best suited to be Israel’s Prime Minister.

The poll was the clearest, but not the only sign of waning support for Gantz. To be sure, Gantz’s party was (and still is) ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. But the gap between the two has dwindled from its peak in December, when Gantz’s party had a whopping 19-seat lead over Netanyahu, to a close four seats in some of the latest polls.

The drop in support for Netanyahu’s main opponent comes as Gantz has sought to execute a difficult manoeuvre: extricating himself from the unity government he joined eight months ago. When he joined, he said he was putting “Israel first” after one of the worst attacks in the country's history.

It was not an easy choice, but it had paid off for several months, as Gantz continued to rank high in the polls. By doing so, Gantz federated around him both the growing ranks of those disillusioned by Netanyahu’s poor leadership as well as a wide segment of Israelis who felt that politics had to take a back seat as Israel responded to the Hamas attacks.

Significant risk

But now Gantz needs to do the opposite and leave the government. This carries with it significant risk: withdrawing is easy, but doing so unscathed politically will be a tour de force. Some of his supporters will be disappointed that he is leaving, while others will be disappointed that he has already overstayed his welcome and should have left months ago.

Timing, again, is essential. Three weeks ago, Gantz made his first move to leave the government. In a speech, Gantz issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, demanding that the government draft a plan to meet six key objectives, including rescuing the hostages, creating an alternative to the Hamas government in Gaza, enabling the return of Israelis displaced by the conflict along the border with Lebanon, and moving to normalise ties with Saudi Arabia. It took only a few hours for Netanyahu to reject the ultimatum.

Gadi Eizenkot, a former Chief of Staff to the Israeli army, encouraged Gantz—his key ally—to leave as quickly as possible. Gantz refused and gave Netanyahu three weeks, which the Israeli premier used to wrest back the narrative, helped by events across Israel and in Gaza.

In the span of three weeks, the situation got worse for Gantz. First, Israel was hit with a series of international condemnations, including news that the ICC Prosecutor was seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Defence Minister Gantz. This was not good news for Netanyahu, to be sure. But it also meant that Gantz would leave the government as Israel’s standing in the world was at its worst—which could have turned against him.

Then, northern Israel was quite literally on fire as Hezbollah intensified its attacks amidst a heatwave. If a war was to break out just as Gantz leaves, this could put him on the back foot, as his opponent will depict him as a man who puts politics first —an accusation that befits Netanyahu far more than Gantz, yet optics are true in politics. The war in Gaza, meanwhile, is also at a critical juncture as Israel now operates deeper inside Rafah.

Then came the last straw: on the very day Gantz was supposed to announce his dramatic departure from the government, as his set deadline expired, an Israeli operation led to the rescue of four Israeli hostages, forcing Gantz to delay his announcement. Just a day earlier, Gantz had met with some of the families of hostages to face the latent anger and frustration of those who have been waiting for eight months for their loved ones to come back.

This is something Netanyahu himself has refused to do publicly. However, hours later, Netanyahu was quick to visit the four rescued hostages, showing himself to be a fair-weather friend—always there in times of joy, ever absent in times of need.

The father of one of the Israeli soldiers who died in captivity in Gaza noted bitterly, “When it ends badly, the prime minister doesn’t come. He also doesn’t call”. But again, Netanyahu was there to celebrate a victory after months of doing everything to avoid responsibility for the massive failure that was 7 October.

Read more: Benjamin Netanyahu: A champion of or detriment to Israel's security?

No easy feat

Now that Gantz has finally extricated himself from the government, the political battle for Israel’s future will intensify. His departure does not guarantee that Netanyahu’s government will collapse. Netanyahu's coalition still has a majority at the Knesset. To replace the current government, Gantz and the Israeli opposition led by Yair Lapid will have to find defectors within the ranks of the coalition. This won’t be easy, as Netanyahu has surrounded himself with “yes men”— some of whom appear completely detached from reality.

Miri Regev, Israel’s transportation minister, praised the government just a few days ago for doing “wonderful things”, gawking at the fact that “so many people are in hotels, all funded by the government”—when referring to the dozens of thousands of displaced Israelis whose homes have been destroyed or made unsafe. Others have been openly or quietly critical of Netanyahu. Chiefly among them is Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who Gantz specifically mentioned in his resignation speech, calling him to “do the right thing”.

However, it will still take a lot to move the needle enough to have members of Netanyahu's own coalition openly defy him. To put enough pressure to bear, Gantz would have to break a taboo, including by potentially joining calls for public protests. As a former defence minister, Gantz is likely hesitant to do so during the war.

His team said they want the newest addition to the opposition to be “statesmanlike” while criticising Yair Golan—the newly elected chairman of the left-wing Labour Party, for going too far by calling on reservists not to show up for duty. Gantz’s team understand the road to change might be long, and their dramatic exit is only the beginning.

In the meantime, the boat Gantz just left on will swing even more to the right as Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich use their newfound leverage—as some of Netanyahu's last remaining allies—to gain even more sway over the government. This is extremely worrying as they are to be in charge at a critical juncture of the war.

Even if the opposition were to find the missing vote to remove the current government, it would still take three months for elections to be held. The window of opportunity to get to elections this autumn, as Gantz called for, is also extremely narrow, as the Knesset will soon end its session in late July, with the next only slated to begin in late October.

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