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Gantz and Bibi in front of suffering in Gaza

Jess Frampton

Last Sunday, Israeli war cabinet member and ex-Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced he was stepping down from Israel’s emergency government, returning to the role he played before Hamas launched its brutal attack on Oct. 7: chief political rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz was joined by war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot. Their resignations followed Netanyahu’s failure to outline a strategy to end the war in Gaza and think through the territory’s post-war governance after Gantz had given him an ultimatum and three weeks to comply.

Moderates generally aligned with the Biden administration but by no means doves (both are retired generals who served as IDF chief of staff), Gantz and Eisenkot had pushed for a deal that allowed for the return of the 120 Israeli hostages that remain in Gaza (about a third of whom are presumed dead) – as well as a “day after” plan to replace Hamas as the enclave’s governing authority. Frustrated by the prime minister’s refusal to work toward these goals, they quit.

So what happens next?

Gantz’s departure won’t topple Bibi. Polling shows that most Israelis want early elections and that Gantz and his centrist National Unity party would handily defeat Netanyahu and his Likud party if they were held today. However, on its own, Gantz’s exit from the wartime government isn’t enough to bring about that outcome. Based on the results of the last election in November 2022, Netanyahu’s original hard-right coalition still commands a narrow, 64-seat majority (out of 120 seats) in the Knesset. While he may be disliked by most of the Israeli public, so long as he retains a majority in parliament, Bibi won’t be forced to face the music until elections are due in October 2026.

To trigger an early ballot and have a shot at ousting Netanyahu before then, Gantz and other leading opposition figures (including Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, and Gideon Sa’ar) would need to put up a united front and convince at least five Knesset members to defect from the ruling coalition and join them in a vote to dissolve the parliament. Gantz’s move could inspire some of Likud’s more centrist lawmakers to rebel, bring intra-coalition tensions to the fore, and increase public pressure to call for new elections, making this scenario possible. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Israel’s extremists will be empowered. With the moderates gone and the unity government formed in the aftermath of Oct. 7 effectively over, Netanyahu is now entirely dependent on his ultranationalist, religious, and far-right coalition partners for his continued political survival. That means their influence on the war effort – which Gantz and Eisenkot had joined the war cabinet to moderate in the first place – is about to grow considerably.

Led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, these radical factions are opposed to cutting any deals with Hamas, believing that only “total defeat” by military means will do – no matter the humanitarian toll and even if it means sacrificing the remaining hostages. They reject the prospect of Palestinian self-governance of Gaza after the war, instead advocating Israeli resettlement and reoccupation of the Strip – something the majority of Israelis, including most of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, oppose. And they demand that Israel open a dangerous second front in Lebanon against Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia that’s been raining down missiles on northern Israel and caused the ongoing displacement of some 60,000 Israelis from their homes.

In practice, the hard-liners’ newfound clout has two immediate consequences, both of which go against everything Gantz worked hard to achieve.

First, it renders the cease-fire and hostage-for-prisoners exchange deal presented by US President Joe Biden and approved by the UN Security Council less likely to come together, even though most Israelis support it and Netanyahu initially backed it. Not that Hamas has agreed to it – it hasn’t, despite reports to the contrary, and it may never. More on that below. But even if it did, Netanyahu is now less likely to accept it than he was a week ago because his far-right partners have vowed to bring down his government if he signs off on any truce that leaves Hamas in control of Gaza (or, more generally, that Hamas is prepared to accept). The war will accordingly go on, deepening Israel’s international isolation, widening Netanyahu’s rift with the Biden administration, and galvanizing the anti-government protests that have only been growing in recent weeks.

Second, it increases the risk of a full-fledged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that could inflict serious damage, draw in other pro-Iranian forces, and even force Tehran to intervene directly to defend the crown jewel of its proxy network. The risk-averse Netanyahu knows how dangerous such an escalatory spiral would be, as does the IDF top brass. The problem is that with Gantz and Eisenkot gone, so is his ability to use them as a foil against Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s demands to escalate the campaign on the northern border in response to Hezbollah’s provocations. From now on, he will own any decision to not escalate, whether that’s in Lebanon, Gaza, or Iran – an unenviable predicament for Netanyahu to be in. Add to that the fact that prolonging the war would likely extend his hold on power and stave off his well-deserved public reckoning, and you start to understand why he might be willing to take such a risk.

Sinwar the kingslayer? Perhaps the one person who could single-handedly bring down Netanyahu is Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s military chief in Gaza, who has the final say on any agreements that bind the militant group. If Sinwar were to unequivocally and unconditionally accept a future cease-fire and hostage release deal, Bibi would be faced with a difficult choice: Either accept it to save the remaining Israeli captives but risk government collapse, or reject it to keep his far-right partners from bolting but face massive public protests over having abandoned the hostages and risk intra-coalition defections, a vote of no confidence, and an even more tarnished legacy than he already has.

Fortunately for Netanyahu (and unfortunately for Israelis and Palestinians), it’s hard to imagine that Sinwar will agree to any deal that releases all the hostages and gives away his leverage at a time when he believes Israel is on the back foot and Hamas is winning the information war. The way he sees it from the safety of Gaza’s underground tunnels, the longer the war goes on and the more civilians die, the more Israel’s position will worsen and Hamas’s will improve – innocent Palestinians (let alone Israelis) be damned. Just like he intended all along.

So long as that’s the case, an agreement will remain far off, and Netanyahu’s best hope for political survival will lie with Israel’s worst enemy.

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