Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Unity party leader Benny Gantz announced a landmark agreement on Wednesday to establish an emergency wartime government, after Hamas launched a brutal and unprecedented assault on Israel early Saturday that claimed the lives of over 1,200 Israelis, the single deadliest day in the country’s history.
The establishment of the new “national emergency government” — an unthinkable prospect mere days ago amid long months of bitter national divisions over Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans — underscored the extent of the shock the nation has suffered and the degree to which politicians and the entire country have been unnerved by the sudden severe threat to national security.
Until Saturday, Gantz had fervently opposed any potential entry into the current government, Israel’s most far-right ever. But he and other opposition members had since changed their tune, saying all internal disagreements needed to be set aside to project a unified front to Israel’s enemies, as well as offer confidence in the leadership to soldiers fighting on the battlefield and to a public devastated by the Hamas onslaught and the failure to predict and prevent it.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid was the first to publicly offer an emergency unity government on Saturday evening, and Netanyahu and Gantz quickly expressed their support. But Lapid is staying out of the government for now, as his demand that Netanyahu sideline far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir has not been met.
However, the two have to a degree been sidelined: The new coalition will see the establishment of a narrow war cabinet, as demanded by Gantz — a former defense minister and former IDF chief of staff — that will comprise just Gantz, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Former IDF chief and current National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, as well as Likud Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, will serve as observers.
Decisions will still need to be approved by the full cabinet, but it appears that the vast majority of critical calls will be made in the narrow forum.
The previous 64-strong coalition grows to 76, in the 120-member Knesset, with the addition of Gantz’s 12-MK party.
Netanyahu and Gantz had held negotiations in recent days. The prime minister had faced widespread criticism over the slow pace of talks, with the emergency government widely seen by the public as a necessity due to the current security crisis.
Reporters for multiple media outlets, among them Haaretz and Channel 12, said Wednesday that a key stumbling block for sealing the deal was opposition by Netanyahu’s wife Sara, who according to some reports asserted that Gantz and Eisenkot would not be able to make the necessary tough decisions, and according to others was afraid the move would hurt her husband politically.
In response, Mrs. Netanyahu issued a terse statement saying only: “The moment calls for unity.”
Gantz was expected to be a part of discussions immediately, though the new cabinet will only be approved in the Knesset on Thursday.
National Security Minister Ben Gvir, who was seen as one of the only members of the cabinet dragging his feet on establishing a wider coalition, concerned about the dilution of his power, wrote on X shortly after the announcement that he “welcomes unity, now we need to win.” Finance Minister Smotrich tweeted only: “Now, for victory.”
Five members of the National Unity party will be added to the broader security cabinet which operates under every government: Gantz, Eisenkot, Gideon Sa’ar, Chili Tropper and Yifat Shasha-Biton. Likud and National Unity agreed that no legislation in the Knesset or government resolutions will be advanced during the war which are not related to managing the war. They also agreed that the term of Bank of Israel chief Amir Yaron will be extended through the end of the war.
A position in the narrow war cabinet has been left open for Opposition Leader Lapid, but a source close to Lapid confirmed to The Times of Israel on Wednesday evening that there were no active talks for him to join the nascent coalition.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman reiterated that his party will not join such a government unless it publicly vows to completely obliterate the Hamas terrorist group.
The decision to form the new expanded government was overwhelmingly welcomed by members of Likud.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin said the agreement “is the right and necessary thing to do — from now on, we work together.”
Likud Minister David Amsalem wrote on X that he had been working “intensively” over the past 48 hours to help establish such a government, and welcomed it coming to fruition: “I am sure that together we will emerge strengthened to accomplish our ultimate mission: a crushing victory over all evil terrorist organizations!”
“The State of Israel has a unity government,” wrote Economy Minister Nir Barkat. “At a time like this we must join forces, give support to IDF soldiers and work as one until we reach a complete victory of the State of Israel over its enemy.”
Shas chief Aryeh Deri praised Netanyahu and Gantz for the move, saying that “our enemies see our unity and understand that they cannot beat us. The entire people of Israel are united and with the help of God we will win.”
Gantz himself issued a laconic statement on X: “Israel is before everything.”
National Unity MK Matan Kahana said “a united emergency government is what we need right now in order to lead to a victory at war.”
The deal came after days of both sides repeatedly calling for its establishment, yet dragging their feet in negotiations. Gantz and Lapid — who have worked fervently to oust Netanyahu and previously vowed never to sit in a government with him again — both indicated on Saturday that they were open to such talks.
On Monday, Netanyahu called for forming a unity government “without preconditions,” appearing to reject Gantz’s demands for a narrow war cabinet. The pair sent envoys to talk but didn’t meet until Wednesday, after repeated delays.
The war cabinet is meant to supersede the broader security cabinet, which includes far-right party heads widely considered to be complicating Israel’s security policy, causing Netanyahu to largely circumvent it thus far.
Hamas’s staggering Saturday terror onslaught, in which hundreds of Israelis were brutally massacred and around 150 were kidnapped to Gaza — the death toll has swelled to over 1,200 dead — prompted immediate calls from both coalition and opposition benches for a unity deal.
Gantz led his political party, then dubbed Blue and White, into a short-lived Netanyahu-led power-sharing government in May 2020 to tackle the COVID-19 epidemic. He was supposed to become prime minister after 18 months, but the government collapsed before that could happen when Netanyahu refused to approve the state budget, thereby using a loophole in the coalition deal that allowed him to avoid handing Gantz the premiership.
Netanyahu has relied on far-right and Haredi political allies for his ruling coalition since regaining the premiership late last year, with a bloc of leftist, centrist and right-wing parties staunchly opposed to him during more peaceful times, in part due to his legal woes.
Some observers have pointed to the unprecedented societal divisions wrought by the government’s overhaul plan and mass public unrest as having given Hamas the impression that Israel was weakened and ripe for attack.