It’s still too soon to turn the page on Netanyahu

Former defence minister Benny Gantz left the war cabinet in June after Netanyahu failed to submit a 'day after' plan for Gaza. But it will take a lot more to collapse the current Likud government.

Jay Torres

It’s still too soon to turn the page on Netanyahu

If there is one thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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, and kick the can down the road as far as possible. Delay and wait for better circumstances, even if that means worsening the crisis. If you just wait, the stars may align once again. This simple strategy has saved Netanyahu many times and is one he hopes to use again to extricate himself from the worst crisis he has ever faced. Netanyahu has often been thought to be “finished”—but he just waited out the storm.

In late May, the embattled 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 preferred Netanyahu.

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 sought to pull off a difficult manoeuvre: extricating himself from the unity government he joined eight months ago.

Eight months ago, days after one of the worst attacks in Israel’s history, Gantz joined Netanyahu, claiming that he was putting “Israel first”. This was not an easy choice, but one that has 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.

Gantz's departure from the war cabinet carries with it significant risk: withdrawing is easy, but doing so unscathed politically will be a tour de force. Some of his supporters were disappointed that he left, while others believe he should have left months ago.

Jay Torres

Bad timing

Here, timing is essential. In May, Gantz first announced his intention to exit the government. In a speech, Gantz issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, demanding that Netanyahu's government draft a plan that would 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 Israeli army Chief of Staff and a key ally of Benny Gantz, recommended Gantz immediately leave the war cabinet. Gantz refused and gave Netanyahu three more weeks. During this time, Netanyahu was able 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 Gallant. 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 looked bad.

Then northern Israel burnt (quite literally) as Hezbollah intensified its attacks amidst a heatwave. Multiple Israeli officials have warned that a “decision” on Lebanon—a possible full-scale war—could soon be made. Gantz not being in government during a war with Hezbollah makes him look bad. His opponents will try to paint him as someone who puts politics first—even though this accusation is more fitting for Netanyahu. But optics are important in politics. Meanwhile, the war in Gaza is at a critical juncture as Israel now operates deeper inside Rafah.

Then came the last straw: On the very day Benny 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 here 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.

Political battle intensifies

Now that Gantz has finally extricated himself from the government, the political battle for Israel’s future will intensify. Gantz’s departure does not guarantee that Netanyahu’s government will collapse: The coalition led by the Israeli Prime Minister still has a majority at the Knesset.

Gantz and the Israeli opposition led by Yair Lapid will have to find defectors within coalition ranks to replace the current government. This won’t be easy, as Netanyahu has surrounded himself with “yes men”, some of whom appear utterly 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 tens 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 Gallant, whom Gantz specifically mentioned in his resignation speech, calling him to “do the right thing.” Tensions are also rising within the ruling coalition amidst a religious push to advance two bills—one to expand the influence of the Religious Ministry and the other to exempt ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service—at a time when Israel is facing unprecedented security challenges.

Several of Netanyahu’s party members have expressed public opposition to these laws, forcing Netanyahu to backtrack on the first one—at least for now. But Netanyahu needs to press on, as religious parties have warned they could leave the government.

This means that a scenario in which the Netanayahu-led government collapses by itself shouldn’t be ruled out as internal tensions mount. However, the government's current factions generally fear elections, knowing they have much to lose and nearly nothing to gain. The religious parties may fare better in elections because of how disciplined their supporters are.

Still, they have nothing to gain from a government change: An alternative government backed by mostly secular parties would be far less likely to give them the same kind of concessions Netanyahu is willing to approve. Short of a political strategy, the opposition to Netanyahu will be confined to passively waiting for his own government to collapse upon itself—which may simply not happen.

Gantz's entourage isn't keen on positioning him as a protest leader. They feel he needs to remain statesmanlike to beat Netanyahu.

Defections necessary

The current Knesset set-up means the opposition's end game will be convincing Netanyahu's coalition members to defect. This is because Netanyahu's right-wing camp still has 64 seats out of 120 despite all the negative polls and even after Gantz's departure.

Per Israel's Basic Laws (the equivalent of the constitution), a vote to disperse the Knesset and subsequently force elections—the opposition's best chance to unseat Netanyahu—requires a strict majority of 61 votes. This means that the opposition needs five ruling coalition members to defect. 

Despite mounting tensions within Netanyahu's own ranks, moving the need to turn pent-up frustration into open defiance will be a challenge. Gantz will have to break a taboo to put enough pressure to bear, including by potentially joining calls for public protests. As a former Israeli defence minister, Gantz is likely hesitant to do so during the war.

Gantz's 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 understands the road to change might be long, and their dramatic exit is only the beginning.

Gantz took a first step, days after resigning, by participating in a small protest in southern Israel. But he has yet to call for demonstrations. Gantz's entourage isn't keen to position the former Israeli defence minister as a protest leader. They feel that he has to remain statesmanlike to beat Netanyahu in the long run. They understand that this might be a marathon rather than a sprint.

Meanwhile, the boat Gantz just left 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.

**This piece is an updated version of a piece originally published by Al Majalla in June.***

font change

Related Articles