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Israel’s war cabinet in turmoil but Netanyahu seen as secure

It certainly appeared crucial. Benny Gantz, ramrod straight and facing the cameras with gravity, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift course on the Gaza war or he’d quit the three-man war cabinet. Israel, he said, needs “a government that will win the people’s trust.”

Coming days after the other war cabinet member, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, bitterly accused Netanyahu of failing to have a postwar plan, it seemed that Netanyahu was being isolated by his two senior deputies, both former top generals, and Israel was headed toward political crisis.

But analysts on Sunday said Netanyahu’s governing coalition, 64 parliamentary seats out of 120, remains secure. Even if Gantz carries out his threat to resign by June 8 — not a certainty — little is likely to change in the short to medium term, they said. The war cabinet might collapse but Netanyahu would continue to rule with his far-right partners.

“Gantz’s chances of overthrowing the government are slim,” said Mazal Mualem, who’s written a recent political biography of Netanyahu. “There is almost no chance that members of Netanyahu’s Likud party will rebel against him, given the political cost. The second way is through massive public protest. But public sentiment isn’t there. Gantz’s move was a mistake.”

Nadav Strauchler, a political consultant, agreed, saying, “The power remains with Netanyahu. Gantz made a mistake to give him three weeks. If you’re going to shoot, don’t talk about it, shoot.”

All that said, if five Likud legislators do rebel or if Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners walk out over court-enforced efforts to draft their young men, Netanyahu would be in trouble and elections may result. And his extremist partners could push him to adopt policies that would lead to massive anti-government demonstrations and objections from Washington, either of which could lead to change.

Gantz, 64, who came in from the opposition to join the cabinet after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and abducting 250, helped plan and run the subsequent war in Gaza. Crisis created an uneasy unity among adversaries.

In the early weeks, all three members, dressed in black, would hold joint news conferences. Top U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, came to Israel and joined in cabinet meetings to plot out how to stop Hamas and other Iranian-backed enemies of Israel from being able to attack again in such a manner.

Half a year later, the picture is very different. Israel says it’s killed 13,000 Hamas fighters and has reduced its missile arsenal and destroyed numerous weapons depots and strategic tunnels. But neither the militia nor its political structure is destroyed. Hamas’ top leaders remain in hiding. In negotiations to trade hostages for Palestinian prisoners, Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, is acting quite confident.

Meanwhile, much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble, its 2.3 million inhabitants are facing disease and hunger, and 35,000 people have been killed, according to Hamas officials, who don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians. The Biden administration is anxious and shares many of Gantz’s concerns.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Netanyahu in Israel after visiting Saudi Arabia in search of a deal to end the war by normalizing relations between the two nations and opening a pathway to statehood for Palestinians. Netanyahu has publicly opposed Palestinian statehood as part of any such deal.

Sullivan’s “constructive meetings” with Saudi Crown Mohammed Bin Salman focused on a “comprehensive vision for an integrated Middle East region,” the White House said in a statement Sunday. He then briefed Netanyahu and his team on “the potential that may now be available for Israel” and Palestinians, according to the White House.

Gantz’s ultimatum on Saturday night instructed Netanyahu to act on a long list of demands or face his resignation. They included getting the hostages back, ending Hamas’ rule, bringing in a multinational coalition to run civilian affairs and building a solid diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia. He even insisted on a long-elusive law to bring the ultra-religious into the army. He gave the prime minister three weeks.

Slow-motion departure

Nadav Eyal, a political analyst with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, said the goal was to start leaving government and bringing about elections without alienating the tens of thousands of voters who have switched allegiance from Netanyahu to him, at least in polls. Gantz therefore avoided too harsh an attack on Netanyahu.

Eyal added, “Gantz is quitting the government the same way that porcupines make love: carefully.”

Netanyahu has two calendars in his head as he continues to try to defeat Hamas — the parliamentary one in Israel and the electoral one in the U.S.

After July, Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, begins a long summer break followed shortly by weeks of Jewish holidays. Assuming he can keep together his coalition of ultra-nationalists and religious parties through July — and the overriding assumption is that he can — he’s unlikely to face elections until early 2025, when the budget is debated.

And in the U.S., starting in July, focus will be overwhelmingly on the political party conventions and the November election pitting Biden against Donald Trump.

Looming threats

There are other reasons to imagine that Netanyahu won’t be driven quickly from office. Israel is fighting a war in Gaza but its military is also engaged in combat in the north against Hezbollah of Lebanon, backed by Iran. If that develops into an all-out war in the coming weeks — some consider that likely — politics will again be pushed aside and Gantz might stay put.

Netanyahu may be distrusted by the U.S. and many Israelis but he’s a politician of rare experience and skill. Strauchler, the consultant, has worked with Netanyahu, 74, over the years and says of the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history that he’s neither a gambler nor an adventurer but “the most adaptive politician I have ever met.”

Mualem, the biographer, added, “Netanyahu is very active and even creative under pressure. He is unusual in terms of his mental strength. In situations of uncertainty, like now, he prepares a set of options and, combined with his skill at holding onto his party members, he keeps his political infrastructure strong.”

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©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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