Who is Benny Gantz, Israeli Official Who Could Upend Gaza War Cabinet?

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
War cabinet minister Benny Gantz has said he wants to see a postwar plan for Gaza from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Saturday.

Benny Gantz is the leader of Israel’s opposition National Unity party and a member of the government’s war cabinet. On May 18, he gave the leader of the cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ultimatum: Come up with a plan for the end of the war in Gaza by June 8.

With no plan announced, Gantz’s office said Friday he was set to speak Saturday evening. The remarks were to be closely watched to see if he carried out his threat and resigned, but following an Israeli operation Saturday morning that facilitated the rescue of four hostages alive from Gaza, Gantz said he was postponing his address.

Gantz has been considered a more liberal counterweight to Netanyahu. If he resigns, it will increase the pressure on Netanyahu to bring the war to a conclusion, but some analysts argue that the embattled Israeli prime minister could lean more on his far-right government allies for support.

Netanyahu on Saturday called on Gantz to stay in the cabinet. “This is the time for unity and not for division,” he said in a post on X. “We must remain united amongst ourselves in the face of the great tasks before us. I call on Benny Gantz – do not leave the emergency government. Don’t give up on unity.”

Here’s what to know about Gantz and the impact his potential resignation may have on Israel and its government.

Gantz is Netanyahu’s main political rival

Gantz, 64, leads the centrist National Unity party and is a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, a position he assumed in 2011. He was born in southern Israel to Holocaust survivors, and joined the military at age 18, working his way up to the top post.

After leaving the military in 2015, he worked in business before turning to politics in 2018. He has enjoyed popularity among Israeli voters since then, known for being a steady, evenhanded antithesis to a sharp and sometimes turbulent Netanyahu.

After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Netanyahu formed an emergency war cabinet, a sort of pop-up government to oversee the war in Gaza. The war cabinet is an unlikely grouping of bitter rivals: Its three voting members are Netanyahu, Gantz and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party but a political foe of the prime minister’s.

Gantz is pushing Netanyahu to wrap up the war

With the war in Gaza dragging on, Gantz called on Netanyahu last month to put forward a postwar plan that includes the return of the dozens of hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza, as well as a road map to demilitarize the Gaza Strip and identify non-Hamas leaders to govern the enclave.

Gantz said if a plan did not materialize by June 8 – Saturday – he would resign from the war cabinet. Putting the ball in Netanyahu’s court, Gantz said at the time, addressing the prime minister: “The choice is in your hands.”

Since Gantz issued his ultimatum, no such plan has come to fruition. President Biden last week announced what he said was an Israeli proposal that could facilitate the return of hostages and a winding down of the war, but the proposal did not fully address what would happen the “day after” the war, as Israeli and U.S. leaders have referred to concerns about what comes after Israel stops fighting there.

Gantz’s office said in a statement Friday that he will give remarks at 8:40 p.m. Saturday local time, shortly after the end of Shabbat. Then, following the operation Saturday morning, he said he was postponing his remarks.

Gantz’s resignation could push Netanyahu further to the right

Gantz has acted as a counterbalance to Netanyahu, who draws most of his support from Israel’s right wing. Netanyahu has distanced himself from the cease-fire proposal announced by Biden, bending to pressure from far-right members of his coalition who have said they will pull their support for him if he moves forward with the deal.

If Gantz resigns, it could push Netanyahu to rely even more heavily on Israel’s right-wing, said Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

Gantz’s resignation would “put Netanyahu at the complete mercy of his right-wing and religious fellow travelers who – in the absence of Gantz’s fig leaf – will try to steer policy in a direction that is anathema to the Biden administration and puts Israel’s essential ties with the United States at risk,” Lipner said.

The potential resignation and subsequent political shake-up would come at a fraught time, with cease-fire negotiations dragging on, burgeoning calls from Israelis pushing Netanyahu to facilitate the return of the hostages and the Biden administration growing increasingly frustrated with the war.

Should Gantz resign, it would “add to the public pressure surrounding Netanyahu” and could “add fuel to the demonstrations against the government,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.