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Benny Gantz walked out. Will Netanyahu survive?

So, what happened over the weekend?

Benny Gantz, a longtime rival of Netanyahu, resigned from the war cabinet on Sunday, eight months after he joined the cabinet to manage the war in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

Gantz and seven of his colleagues will now join an organized push by parties in the opposition to topple the government or advance legislation to dissolve the Knesset in favor of new elections. 

That leaves Netanyahu with a 64-seat majority in the 120-member body, vulnerable to crises. 

Was there something that happened that made Gantz quit? Or was this a long time coming?

Gantz’s departure came three weeks after issuing an ultimatum to the prime minister to formulate a substantive plan for the governance of a post-war Gaza. However, the partnership — the second in four years — proved unsuccessful in recent months as Netanyahu marginalized Gantz and his partner, former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, on major decisions. 

Though all cabinet decisions were unanimous, the two publicly displayed their mutual distrust. 

Gantz bit his lip, choosing to serve out of patriotism and hoping to prevent reckless decision-making as presented by far-right ministers. Gantz distanced himself from Netanyahu on key strategy issues and over the military exemption for yeshiva students

They differed on expanding the mandate for Israeli negotiators to compromise in talks with Hamas over a hostage exchange deal. Such a deal has been elusive since the first ceasefire deal, which paused fighting for a week and allowed for the release of 105 hostages in November.

Gantz also criticized Netanyahu for his refusal to engage with the Biden administration on a postwar plan, which aims to guarantee Israel’s security and the establishment of a Palestinian state. In March, Netanyahu accused Gantz of undermining him by traveling to Washington for meetings with senior administration officials and congressional leaders without his approval. A week after Gantz’s visit, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a speech calling for new Israeli elections, and Biden later followed Vice President Kamala Harris’ public call for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza.

President Joe Biden joined an Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. (Getty)President Joe Biden joined an Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18. Photo by Getty Images

What impact will this have on the ongoing war effort in Israel?

Not much. Israeli troops are advancing in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, considered the last stronghold of the terror group in the Gaza Strip. The operation is likely to take a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the IDF is conducting special missions in other parts of Gaza.

Netanyahu has not yet indicated whether he will invite other members into the war cabinet or disband the forum. He will continue to rely on consultations with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his close advisers, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who are considered more moderate than most of Netanyahu’s security cabinet ministers.

Israel is also awaiting Hamas’ response to a proposal embraced by President Joe Biden, which could lead to the release of all the hostages and an end to the more than eight-month-long war in Gaza. Gantz and Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, have vowed to support the government from outside to pass such a deal. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on March 17, 2024. Photo by LEO CORREA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Biden and Netanyahu have not always seen eye to eye, and Gantz was viewed as a centrist partner. How will this impact the U.S.-Israel relationship with regards to the war?

In the short term, it complicates the U.S. engagement with the Israeli government. Gantz’s presence provided the Biden administration a sense of assurance that — even with disagreements over Israel’s actions — there was a responsible element within the cabinet. While they may continue to work with Gallant and Dermer on urgent policy issues, the U.S. will likely adopt a more scrutinizing and assertive stance.

As long as there is hope for a hostage deal, Biden will give Netanyahu leeway to secure a settlement with Hamas. However, if the stalemate persists and Netanyahu appears to be catering to the demands of his far-right partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, criticism of Israel’s policies could intensify. 

You wrote that Gantz’s resignation could strengthen Netanyahu’s grip on power. Could you explain?

Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties, is more cohesive and Netanyahu can buy himself more time to preserve his grip on power by adopting a hawkish stance. 

A rift with Biden over policy only helps Netanyahu’s cause with his base — proving he can stand up to pressure. 

Israeli elections aren’t scheduled until 2026, but the Gantz exit could mean elections take place as early as this fall. Why is that?

Gantz was a significant protective buffer in the name of unity that helped shield the government from intense pressure to form an inquiry into the failures of Oct. 7. The loss of Gantz could trigger a domino effect, leading to greater protests and calls for Netanyahu’s ouster.

Netanyahu will be an isolated figure in a coalition emboldened to adopt more extreme measures against the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. Lack of progress in the hostage crisis, a unified opposition, and some Likud members being alarmed by the actions of a right-wing government could lead to the collapse of his government.  

Netanyahu will also be tested in the coming weeks over a controversial Haredi draft exemption bill, forced by a High Court ruling after an extension expired. The Knesset is expected to vote in the early morning hours of Tuesday to apply the rule of continuity to a bill that was promoted by the Bennett-Lapid government in 2021. Gallant plans to oppose the measure, saying it doesn’t meet the military’s needs and lacks broad agreement. Some Likud members have indicated they will not support the legislation in its current form in future votes. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, March 27, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images) Image by

When new elections roll around, who would be the top contenders to beat Netanyahu?

Polls show Gantz with a lead over the Likud ruling party and he is considered the public’s preferred candidate for prime minister.

But a win doesn’t guarantee him the premiership. The last person who managed to oust Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in power was the head of a small six-seat party, Naftali Bennett. Bennett was prime minister for only one year.

Additionally, a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 after Gantz’s departure showed that a unified right-wing party would come out on top with 23 projected seats. Such a bloc could be headed by either Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman – who is rising in the polls – or former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was the interim prime minister for six months in 2022, has been lagging in public opinion polls as an alternative behind Gantz. However, he has gained trust for not joining the emergency government and refusing to legitimize Netanyahu’s premiership at a time when most Israelis see the prime minister as responsible for the failure to protect Israel’s citizens in the south.

Given the frustration of Israeli citizens about how Netanyahu failed to protect them on Oct. 7 and what some would call his mismanagement of the war, is there a chance he could still win reelection?

With Netanyahu — who served for more than 17 years as the country’s leader with three successful comebacks — never say never.

The post Benny Gantz walked out. Will Netanyahu survive? appeared first on The Forward.

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