Moderates Quit Netanyahu’s Emergency Government, Call for Elections

Israeli Minister Benny Gantz addresses the media after his ultimatum to withdraw his centrist party from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government expired, in Ramat Gan, Israel June 9, 2024.

TEL AVIV – Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, centrist members of Israel’s war cabinet, announced on Sunday night they would resign from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government, deepening the country’s political turmoil as it struggles to manage global fallout from the war in Gaza and escalating hostilities along its border with Lebanon.

“Unfortunately, Netanyahu is preventing us from achieving real victory,” Gantz said in a televised prime-time broadcast, making the case that new leadership was needed to steer Israel through its widening crises.

Netanyahu had made “empty promises” of “total victory,” he said, rather than crafting a day-after plan for the war in Gaza, acting decisively against Hezbollah in the north and working toward a cease-fire and hostage release deal with Hamas.

Netanyahu reacted before Gantz had even finished speaking, posting on X: “Israel is in an existential war on several fronts. Benny, this is not the time to abandon the war – this is the time to join forces.”

Gantz is considered Netanyahu’s top political rival, regularly besting him in public opinion polls when Israelis are asked who is best fit to lead the country. Though his resignation does not immediately threaten Netanyahu’s coalition, it could lead to a political chain reaction, analysts said, and embolden the prime minister’s many critics at home and abroad.

An hour after Gantz spoke, Gadi Eisenkot, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Army who joined the war cabinet, and Israeli minister Chili Tropper submitted their own resignation letters.

“We have witnessed that the decisions made by the government and by you are not necessarily motivated by national considerations and the good of the country,” Eisenkot wrote to Netanyahu. “Foreign and political considerations have infiltrated the discussion rooms and influence the decision-making.”

Netanyahu still maintains a 64-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But more defections could be coming.

In his speech, Gantz addressed Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant – a war cabinet member from Netanyahu’s own Likud party – saying “at this time, leadership and courage are not only saying what is right, but doing what is right.”

A more moderate figure in Netanyahu’s increasingly far-right coalition, Gallant has privately and publicly called for Netanyahu to find an alternative to Hamas in Gaza – which remains a lethal fighting force and the de facto governing power in the enclave despite eight months of grinding war. Gallant has also voiced support for reaching a deal with the militants to bring home the 120 hostages still in captivity, even if it requires painful compromises.

President Biden has been urging Israel for months to commit to a “day-after” plan for the war in Gaza and caught officials in Jerusalem off-guard last week when he made public the details of an Israeli cease-fire proposal. On Tuesday, he told Time there is “every reason” to believe Netanyahu is prolonging the conflict to serve his own interests.

Far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir brushed off Gantz’s resignation, writing on X that “the time has come to make brave decisions, achieve real deterrence and bring security to the residents of the south, the north, and all of Israel.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, another ultranationalist coalition member, accused Netanyahu’s critics of playing into the hands of Israel’s enemies: “This is exactly what Sinwar, Nasrallah and Iran were aiming for, and unfortunately you are fulfilling their request,” he posted on social media, referring to Hamas’s military chief and the leader of Hezbollah, whose fighters have stepped up their attacks on Israel in recent weeks.

It was precisely because of the urgent threats facing the nation, Gantz said, that he could no longer serve in the war cabinet. “Fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitancy and procrastination due to political considerations,” he said Sunday. “In the fall, a year since the disaster of Oct. 7, there should be elections that will eventually establish a government that will win the trust of the people and be able to face challenges.”

In the aftermath of Oct. 7 – the deadliest single attack in Israel’s history – Netanyahu set up a limited, six-member war cabinet – ensuring his own position at the head of government while excluding his extremist coalition partners from taking part in strategic decisions about the war in Gaza.

The participation of Gantz and his party “gave a broad swath of Israelis a higher level of confidence that critical wartime decisions were being made with moderate voices in the room and broad national representation, rather than narrow political interests,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan Israeli think tank.

A recent IDI poll found plummeting support for the government across the board, Plesner said, and he expected Gantz’s departure to further fuel public discontent. Nationwide protests have grown in recent weeks, led by hostage families and their supporters, who fear time is running out for those still inside Gaza.

Gantz delayed his announcement by one day following a dramatic Israeli military operation on Saturday, which rescued four hostages from Gaza and spurred celebrations across the country – a rare and fleeting moment of national unity.

On Saturday, Gantz said that, “along with the justified joy of the achievement, it should be remembered that all the challenges that Israel faces, regarding the return of the other 120 hostages, and the other security challenges … remain as they were.”

Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, has never accepted responsibility for the failures of Oct. 7. He has waved away calls for investigating security lapses that day, saying such questions should be examined after the war.

Others have not waited. Hours before Gantz’s speech on Sunday, Brigadier-General Avi Rosenfeld, the head of the Israeli military’s Gaza division at the time of the Hamas-led attack, announced he would resign from his position.

“I failed in my life’s mission to protect the Gaza border communities,” said Rosenfeld. “Everyone has to take responsibility for their part.”