What Benny Gantz’s resignation means for Israeli policy and politics

Is this the beginning of the end for the Netanyahu government?

A woman walks past a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo
A woman walks past a Blue and White party election campaign banner depicting its leader, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the March 23 ballot, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

On Sunday, June 9, Israeli minister Benny Gantz, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet and Netanyahu’s main putative challenger for the position of prime minister, resigned from the government along with his fellow party member Gadi Eisenkot. The resignation comes at an awkward time for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which has been making a significant effort to promote a cease-fire and hostage release deal, proposed by Israel, outlined by Biden in a speech on May 31, and adopted by the U.N. Security Council as Resolution 2735. Gantz and Eisenkot, major proponents of such a deal within the Israel war cabinet, are now out of decisionmaking circles. Should Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, accept the deal, which he has not so far, Netanyahu would now have heightened political incentive to balk at his own proposal. But the resignation may also serve to catalyze political changes in Israel that may hasten a change of leadership, something the Biden administration would welcome. While there is no guarantee that Gantz’s resignation will bring Israel’s elections any closer, it was a necessary step for any major political change.

The Israeli war cabinet is formed

As the details and magnitude of the October 7 terrorist attack became clear, there were immediate calls in Israel for a national emergency government that would include centrist opposition leaders alongside Netanyahu. Israelis shared a sense of historic crisis and were prepared for a major war. The official leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, offered to join the cabinet, but he demanded that Netanyahu exclude Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two far-right ministers, from his security cabinet. Netanyahu refused, with the rationale that after the emergency government eventually dissolved, he would have lost his base. It was an early sign that politics would continue to play a substantial role in the prime minister’s decisions, even in the depths of the crisis.

Gantz, the other major opposition leader, joined the cabinet nonetheless, satisfied instead by the creation of a “mini” war cabinet that excluded the two far-right ministers from the management of the war.

In the Israeli system, the prime minister is not the commander in chief of the military. Rather, the cabinet serves in that role, as a committee, with most powers bestowed on a smaller security cabinet (formally, the “ministerial committee for national security affairs”) of which Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are members. Netanyahu and Gantz thus formed an ad-hoc forum, the mini-war cabinet, with three official members: Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, and Gantz. They were joined by three observers, Eisenkot; Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s confidante and former ambassador to the United States; and Aryeh Deri, the most veteran minister and leader of the Shas party. Notably absent were the far-right ministers.

Resignations and consequences

Gantz and Eisenkot joined the emergency cabinet on a temporary basis, for the duration of the war’s initial phases, and with the public expectation that they might resign by the end of 2023 or early 2024. Months past that, their resignations now have implications for Israeli policy and politics.

By May, as tensions with the Biden administration over Israel’s Gaza strategy had grown, Gallant publicly called out Netanyahu and criticized the latter’s lack of strategy for what Gaza might look like after Hamas. Without defined strategic goals, no operational or tactical objectives could succeed. Gallant demanded that Netanyahu state that he does not plan for a return to Israeli occupation, as existed before the Oslo II Accords of 1994. This dramatic challenge to Netanyahu also created an opening for Gantz.

In May, Gantz finally signaled his intent to resign. He laid out conditions for his staying in the government and set an ultimatum that he would leave if they were not met, which Netanyahu rebuffed the same day. In policy terms, his most notable demand echoed Gallant, demanding that Netanyahu elucidate the beginning of a strategy for the day after in Gaza.

Gantz, Gallant, and Eisenkot are all retired generals with a long, shared history in the military. Gantz is the former chief of staff of the military, a high-profile role that is more influential in Israel than the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in the United States, for example. As the only lieutenant general in the Israeli military and the commander of everyone in uniform, the chief of staff commands a great deal of attention from a public who face, in theory, universal conscription. When Gantz was appointed to the top military post in 2011, he was, in fact, the second choice of the cabinet. Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak had preferred Gallant, who was considered more hawkish on Iran, but was disqualified by a public committee due to ethical concerns. Eisenkot was appointed as Gantz’s deputy in 2013 and eventually succeeded him at the top military post. 

Now in government and civilian clothes, the former generals were at times allies in the war cabinet, despite representing different parties. Their demand for strategic thinking about the day after also reflected their desire to see some role, even if limited, for the secular, West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza, which Netanyahu has rejected. The centrist ministers’ departures weaken that prospect, possibly strengthening the hands of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who would prefer to see the collapse of the PA altogether.

Elections are not imminent … probably

The resignations also had political motivations. Gantz has led Netanyahu in the polls ever since October 7, but his lead has narrowed significantly. If elections were held today, polls now suggest the possibility of an inconclusive election, though still with a clear advantage to the opposition. If these were the results of the next election, Gantz would need to cobble together a coalition reminiscent of the coalition headed by Lapid and Naftali Bennett, an act of political acrobatics that only held together for slightly over a year.

Elections are not scheduled for over two years, however. Even with Gantz’s resignation, Netanyahu’s original coalition, which consists of 64 out of 120 members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, still holds a clear majority. It could fracture in different scenarios, but none of them is very likely in the short term.

First, with Gantz’s and Eisenkot’s resignations, centrist Likud members, such as Gallant, may opt to defect and try to replace Netanyahu. This would be a very risky move for them politically, but it may become more likely if demonstrations against the government, already growing, return to the large scale that Israel had seen before October 6. Gantz’s presence in the government, and especially the war’s continuation, made the environment less conducive to such public pressure until now.

Netanyahu’s far-right partners may also bring about his downfall if he veers to the center. In particular, they have already warned that should Hamas accept the cease-fire and Netanyahu move forward with the deal (a “surrender,” as Smotrich termed it), they would topple the government. This, of course, makes such a scenario less likely.

Finally, there is a small chance that Netanyahu’s Haredi partners, who are the most conservative religiously but not the most hawkish in terms of national security, might destabilize his coalition. Haredi men are exempt from military service, due to political maneuvering, a highly emotive grievance for the majority of Jewish Israelis who do serve, especially in a time of war and bereavement. With the Supreme Court now demanding a legislative basis for the exemption, Netanyahu’s coalition is struggling to put one in place. Seeing a political opening, Gantz made conscription, in some form, one of his central demands of Netanyahu. Should such a legal standing not be found, the Haredim may follow through on their threats to resign, though they are unlikely to get a better deal with another prime minister later, and so have incentives to remain.

One final option remains: Netanyahu could call for elections himself if he found an opportune moment or excuse. Netanyahu has identified his opposition to a Palestinian state as a winning ticket in a population traumatized by October 7 and loath to take any security risks in negotiations with Palestinians. Netanyahu would hope to portray himself as the one man able to withstand international pressure on Palestinian sovereignty. He will undoubtedly hope to return to the theme of his recent election campaigns, portraying himself as being “in a league of his own” in global diplomacy. One opportunity for a campaign image of Netanyahu on the global stage will come soon, currently scheduled for July 24, when he speaks before a joint session of Congress.