Netanyahu’s War Cabinet Is at War With Itself

Benny Gantz, a minister in Israel’s wartime cabinet, with the families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza, near Beit Shemesh, Israel, last week.
Benny Gantz, a minister in Israel’s wartime cabinet, with the families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza, near Beit Shemesh, Israel, last week.

Summary

Tensions are mounting in Israel’s war cabinet as its three members jockey for political clout and disagree over how to pursue the war in Gaza.

TEL AVIV—Fearing a breakdown in ties between the White House and Israel over the war in Gaza, Benny Gantz, chief political rival to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a minister in his wartime cabinet, planned a trip to Washington.

When Gantz informed Netanyahu about the trip, the prime minister was angry.

“There’s only one prime minister," Netanyahu told Gantz, who defied the prime minister and met with Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday.

The incident, recounted by Israeli officials, reflects the rising tensions between Israel’s wartime leadership as they jockey for political clout and disagreements mount over how to wage the war and secure a deal to release hostages. It also comes amid growing international pressure for a cease-fire over the humanitarian disaster inside Gaza, and increasing frustration with Netanyahu’s leadership from Israel’s most important ally, the U.S.

The move by Gantz to pursue the trip to Washington came days after the third member of the wartime cabinet, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, demanded the government pass legislation to draft ultraorthodox men into the army—a move widely seen as one that could topple Netanyahu’s coalition that relies on two ultraorthodox political parties.

Gantz, who leads the center-right National Unity party, and Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party, have been longtime rivals who put aside their differences after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that sparked the war in Gaza to form an emergency government. Along with Gallant, they make up the three-member war cabinet that is responsible for all political wartime decisions.

The three men are a team of rivals, each with their own bitter back story of gripes and slights against each other. Each also has their own political ambitions, with most polls showing Gantz would likely trounce Netanyahu if elections were held today. Their partnership has at times appeared united, and insiders say they have generally worked professionally together, but cracks are appearing more as the war drags on.

Gantz has been open about his desire to unseat Netanyahu, even from within the cabinet. “At the end or after the emergency government we will be political rivals," Gantz said of Netanyahu in late December. But, he said, Netanyahu “was never my enemy."

Gantz has held meetings with state leaders and other foreign dignitaries since the beginning of the war, acting as a separate locus of power in the cabinet beyond Netanyahu. His current trip to Washington is the first time he planned high-level meetings without coordinating with Netanyahu, according to Israeli officials.

Gantz met with Harris and other top Biden administration officials on Monday, and is expected to meet Tuesday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The two discussed ways to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza and how that can broaden normalization efforts between Israel and the region, the need to remove Hamas from power, and the need for Israel to establish a credible humanitarian plan before a major military operation in the town of Rafah, where over a millions Gazans are currently sheltering, according to statements by the White House and Gantz’s office.

“In inviting Benny Gantz to the White House, the administration is sending an unmistakable signal of unhappiness with Benjamin Netanyahu, concerns that he may no longer be the reliable predictable partner that the U.S. needs," said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. Mideast negotiator.

Michael Biton, a lawmaker in Gantz’s National Unity party, said Gantz was alarmed by the degrading relationship with Washington. He said the U.S. decision to airdrop humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip last week showed the U.S. and Israel weren’t coordinating policy properly.

“It has become very urgent to solve and to build relations with American partners and Gantz is well accepted and well known in Washington," said Biton.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party decried Gantz’s decision to go to Washington as a political move to undermine Israel’s leader during wartime. The Israeli prime minister similarly blasted Gallant’s decision to call for drafting ultraorthodox men as a ploy that could lead to elections.

Netanyahu, in a press conference the day after Gallant demanded a law to extend the mandatory service to the ultraorthodox, said elections “during the war would mean defeat for Israel." He argued it would paralyze decision-making and undermine national unity. He also said he would seek a compromise on the issue.

Both Gantz and Gallant, former senior generals, are pushing for policies supported by the security establishment but opposed by many in Netanyahu’s hard-right and religious coalition. The two have publicly pressed Netanyahu to come up with a plan for who should govern Gaza after the war, and Gantz has joined Gallant in pushing the prime minister to enlist ultraorthodox men into the military.

Both are issues that could bring down the prime minister’s coalition. Netanyahu’s coalition, the most right-wing, religious and ultranationalist in the country’s history, includes lawmakers who flatly reject U.S. plans for a reformed Palestinian Authority to take over in the Gaza Strip. This includes Netanyahu, who argues the authority is too weak to survive and too antagonistic toward Israel. Instead, some of the ministers in his coalition are pushing for Israeli resettlement of Gaza, a move the U.S. strongly opposes. Netanyahu says he wants Israel to keep indefinite security control of Gaza and locals approved by Israel to run civilian affairs.

Netanyahu also relies on two ultraorthodox political parties who could pull out of his coalition if a bill moved forward that forced ultraorthodox conscription, a move that would topple his government and bring new elections at a time when Netanyahu’s popularity is at an record low.

“There’s no simple solution here," said Gideon Rahat, a professor of politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Netanyahu is really in trouble."

The disagreements aren’t designed to topple the coalition, associates of Gantz and Gallant say, but to make their influence felt in government. Both men want to retain their sway over the war. A cease-fire remains elusive, and Israel still faces the prospect of war with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah later this year, a far more powerful foe than Hamas.

The tensions brewing between the three men now can also be traced back to historical political rivalries. Netanyahu burned Gantz when he forced new elections rather than allow Gantz to become prime minister after the two had formed an agreement to split up the term. Gallant was fired by Netanyahu last year as defense minister after he called for a stop to a planned judicial reform that had sparked mass protests across the country. Netanyahu was forced to cancel the termination after widespread pushback.

Gantz isn’t the first Israeli minister to initiate his own trips to the White House. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak frequently traveled to Washington while serving in a previous Netanyahu government, said Michael Oren, Israel’s D.C. ambassador at the time. Oren said such rivalry inside the cabinet is a feature of Israeli politics.

“A prime minister of Israel has more than a team of rivals. A prime minister has a team of replacements. And often a team of assassins. Almost no one in an American cabinet would ever be an American president. But everyone in an Israeli cabinet is a potential prime minister," Oren said.

Write to Dov Lieber at dov.lieber@wsj.com and Rory Jones at Rory.Jones@wsj.com

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