As his political alliance falls apart, Netanyahu faces internal battle

Still battling Israel's external enemies on multiple fronts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awoke Monday to a new political battlefield at home.

The departure this weekend of Benny Gantz and his centrist National Unity party from Israel's wartime emergency government is unlikely to immediately sever Netanyahu's grip on power. The prime minister's ruling coalition still holds a narrow majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

But Gantz's move means Netanyahu is now totally dependent on his far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners as he presses ahead with the war in Gaza despite growing international opprobrium, leaving him increasingly isolated and exposed at home and abroad.

Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, another powerful National Unity member, also left Netanyahu's small war cabinet. They are both former military leaders who were widely seen as key voices of moderation in the five-member body, formed in October after the Hamas-led assault on Israel prompted an Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.

The two centrist politicians have sparked public confidence in government decision-making at a time of national trauma. They also gave the war cabinet an aura of legitimacy and consensus as Israel fought Hamas in Gaza, as well as its archenemy, Iran, and its other proxies, including the powerful Hezbollah militia along Israel's northern border with the Lebanon.

Gantz accused Netanyahu of “political procrastination,” suggesting he had put off critical strategic decisions to ensure his political survival. His decision to leave the wartime government ushers in a new period of political instability and has left many Israelis wondering where the country will go from here on.

Describing the political upheaval as “incredibly consequential,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem, said in a statement that Israelis had already given the government low marks on a range of issues related to the wartime. . That includes managing the fighting and relations with the United States, Israel's crucial ally, he said.

“With Gantz absent, I expect these ratings to become even lower,” Plesner said.

Gantz issued an ultimatum three weeks ago, warning Netanyahu that he would dissolve the emergency government unless the prime minister presented clear plans, including who would replace Hamas as ruler of a post-conflict Gaza and how to bring back the dozens of remaining hostages. detained in the Palestinian enclave.

Gantz joined the government last October to foster a sense of unity in a time of crisis. He has joined forces with his political rival, Netanyahu, despite a deep lack of trust between the two and a history of betrayals. The last time Gantz entered a government with Netanyahu, in 2020, it also ended badly after Netanyahu broke their power-sharing agreement. The influence of Gantz and Eisenkot, whose son, a soldier, was killed in December while fighting in Gaza, has waned in recent months, leading many Israelis to ask why they hadn't left the emergency government sooner and joined to the opposition. Gantz has called for early elections this fall.

Netanyahu's remaining formal partners in the war cabinet are his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a rival within the conservative Likud party who Netanyahu tried to fire last year; and Ron Dermer, a veteran Netanyahu confidant with more diplomatic than political experience. It's unclear whether it will continue to work.

A separate, larger security cabinet includes two ultranationalist party leaders: Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of national security, and Bezalel Smotrich, minister of finance. Both want to resettle Gaza with the Israelis.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have both vowed to topple Netanyahu's government if it proceeds with an Israeli proposal for a deal including a truce and hostage exchange for Palestinian prisoners, which, as President Biden outlined during a meeting week ago , would effectively end the war.

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