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Gantz quits the war cabinet: Sizzle or fizzle?

The former IDF chief made good on an ultimatum to Netanyahu but the real impact on the situation is unclear

Analysis | Middle East

Benny Gantz, the former chief of the Israel Defense Forces and prime minister in a revolving arrangement with Benjamin Netanyahu several years ago, announced that he is quitting the war cabinet. What impact this has on Netanyahu’s government and its war policy in Gaza is now the subject of high speculation.

He and another centrist former IDF commander, Gadi Eisenkot, had accepted a place in the war cabinet to underscore Israeli unity in the wake of the October 7 Hamas assault on Israeli towns in the southern Negev. They have, for the most part, supported, or at least acquiesced in, the government’s Gaza campaign.

Despite international insistence that a ceasefire was essential to the well-being of Gaza’s battered civilian population and diplomatic intervention, Gantz and Eisenkot have backed Netanyahu’s insistence that a ceasefire before Hamas had been completely dismantled would be unacceptable to Israel. Their position mirrors the Hamas view: any ceasefire that does not recognize Hamas’s authority in Gaza or permits Israel to resume the war after hostages and their remains have been repatriated is unacceptable to Hamas’s Gaza wing.

Much ink has been spilled analyzing Qatari, Egyptian and U.S. missteps or hidden agendas in the negotiations, but the fact is that neither Yahya Sinwar nor Benjamin Netanyahu could sign up to ceasefire terms that granted the other even the most symbolic of victories.

The stated reason for Gantz’s defection, which he foreshadowed a couple of weeks ago, was Netanyahu’s failure to produce a post-conflict plan for Gaza that wasn’t laughable. The prime minister has floated various arrangements.

The first was to use Gazan businessmen for service delivery, essentially of humanitarian goods, but of more kinds of imports as time progressed, and as the Israeli conduit to Gaza for non-military purposes. How this would evolve into a government for Gaza was not clear, but the Israeli government did seem to think that its business partners would eventually coalesce into a governing authority.

This idea was shredded by the first attempt to put it in practice, when a shipment of food that Israel had transferred to these new partners was raided by Hamas. Thereupon another conception took flight involving the Saudis, or other moderate Arab states, accepting security responsibility and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, offering “temporary” refuge to Gazans displaced by Israeli military operations.

This idea was promptly and predictably derided by the proposed participants. More recently, the government’s planning crossed the line between absurdism and surrealism by circulating a brochure of the “new” Gaza, which depicted a science fiction version of contemporary Dubai. This made the Onion look like the Wall Street Journal.

Gantz himself advanced the idea of a kind of Star Wars bar governing authority consisting of personnel from an array of moderate Arab governments, Western powers, NGOs and some Gazans who could verify that had never heard of Hamas. Both Gantz and Netanyahu refuse to countenance a role for the Palestinian Authority; Gantz, it’s well to remember, opposes a two-state solution. Gantz’s criticism of Netanyahu’s lack of a “day after” plan is certainly apt, but Gantz’s own seems unequal to the desolation of Gaza and the vacuum that Israel’s campaign will have created.

Be that as it may, the question on the tips of many tongues is whether Gantz’s departure will unleash a political process resulting in Netanyahu’s defenestration. This seems unlikely. The Knesset numbers are what they are. Netanyahu’s coalition will not fall. And the Knesset calendar is what it is. Netanyahu just has to last until 25 July, when the legislature goes into recess. It won’t come back until the week before the November 4 U.S. elections, which could produce a Trump presidency.

And before the Knesset recesses, Netanyahu will have had yet another occasion to address both houses of the U.S.Congress. This will stir up the large reservoir of American support for Israel’s Gaza campaign, burnish Netanyahu’s credentials as custodian of the U.S.-Israel relationship and set the stage for nearly three more years of Netanyahu’s leadership.

One of Netanyahu’s claims is likely to be that under his skillful leadership, dire predictions of a widening war and escalating violence have not come to pass. While it is true that Israel’s north is in parts uninhabitable, the same could be said for Lebanon’s south. As for increasing exchanges of fire across the Blue Line that separates the two countries, “…well, you should see the other guy.”

A confrontation with Iran in April was handled like a clockwork Kennedy School class project orchestrated by Thomas Schelling. Israel organized a coalition of the U.S., France, UK, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to neuter Iran’s attack and responded with the perfect blend of constraint and precision firepower. The picture of course was more complicated than that and raised ominous questions about how a real war would play out. But for Netanyahu’s domestic political purposes these considerations are obviously irrelevant.

Even as Netanyahu’s probable durability leaves a workable Gaza endgame open to grave doubt, it also raises the question of what Israel will do in the north. Israel pundits and officials have been beating the war drums for weeks, suggesting that the IDF is prepared to enter Lebanon and push Hezbollah 30 kilometers or more back from the Blue Line. Hezbollah has up to 100,000 missiles and rockets it could rain on Israel in response.

The IDF however has been planning for an operation in Lebanon since the fiasco of the 2006 war. Military planners likely believe they have got the problems sorted: Swift attrition of Hezbollah's missiles via thousands of airstrikes and a well-stocked air defense umbrella; new and improved tactics for use of armor and infantry; and the advantage of surprise.

Much of Israel’s armor is in the north, there aren’t any Israeli civilians in the area to worry about, and the ongoing exchanges of fire would provide cover for a surprise attack.

On the other hand, Netanyahu will probably shy away from the tremendous risks that such a war would entail; he would be especially averse to starting another full-scale and far more challenging fight until Gaza has been digested.

If he is attracted to the idea, he might prefer to wait until after Election Day in the U.S. Dealing with Trump might make a Lebanon War easier to prosecute; a Biden White House would be decidedly less sympatico.

As for the near term, Gantz should take the opportunity for a relaxing vacation. The only real question is Itamar Ben-Gvir’s demand that he be included in the war cabinet upon Gantz’s departure. This might make the hair stand up on the backs of many necks in Washington and Israel, but the fact is that Netanyahu has been quite attentive to Ben-Gvir’s preferences from the outset.

Indeed ,he was channeling this ultra-right winger in his latest public statement on Israel’s war aims, in which he doubled down on the proposition that the security of Israel – that is, the destruction of Hamas – takes precedence over the fate of the hostages.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz gives a speech during a rally with supporters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 17, 2019. (Shutterstock/ Gil Cohen Magen)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz gives a speech during a rally with supporters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 17, 2019. (Shutterstock/ Gil Cohen Magen)
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