Gallant tries to force Netanyahu’s hand on Gaza; it probably won’t work

14 months after briefly losing his job, the defense minister again challenges his boss, demanding real plans to replace Hamas, no Gaza occupation, and less of the personal politics

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend an event for outstanding soldiers as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant attend an event for outstanding soldiers as part of Israel's 75th Independence Day celebrations, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant lit a fuse Wednesday night when he delivered a public address accusing the government of mismanaging the war. The charge, however, had been building for months.

The defense minister, who was memorably (if briefly) fired in March 2023 for warning that the divide over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans was posing a tangible threat to Israel’s security, evidently felt that he could no longer enable the prime minister’s political maneuvering.

This time Gallant called on Netanyahu to make decisions, and spoke of three in particular, of national— even historic— importance, that the prime minister hasn’t managed to make.

First: Does Netanyahu want a short war, or a long one? This question was the heart of the defense minister’s unequivocal demand that the government discuss and decide on an alternative to Hamas in Gaza, which would inevitably hasten the end of major fighting and give the IDF some direction.

IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari implied the same thing in comments he made during a press conference on Tuesday that sounded like veiled criticism of Netanyahu.

Gallant knows that this foot-dragging by Israel’s leaders, without a decision, leaves the IDF stuck in Gaza, and that it strengthens Hamas, at an unacceptable cost. It is feeling more and more like those wars in Lebanon, when days came and went without any plan, costing soldiers their lives.

It may even have been the awful losses of recent days, including the friendly-fire incident in Jabaliya on Wednesday in which five soldiers were killed, that drove Gallant to deliver his address, which sounded at times like an ultimatum to Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivers a statement to the press at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, May 15, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The prospect of an IDF government in Gaza

Second: Gallant demanded that Netanyahu publicly declare that he opposes Israeli military and civil governance of post-Hamas Gaza. In other words, he insisted that the prime minister tell the country and the world, unprecedentedly, that he will not pursue occupying Gaza and managing civilian issues there in the way the Military Governance system functioned in the territories after the Six Day War.

Gallant does not want to lead Israel into the same quagmire in which it is stuck in the West Bank, into a situation where it rules over millions of hostile Palestinians in Gaza. That is a terrible scenario that could destroy the state, in the near or long term.

Twenty years ago, Gallant was military advisor to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Gallant already understood then that there was no future in maintaining the presence of a few thousand Israeli settlers in the middle of Gaza’s huge Palestinian population. In 2005, Sharon oversaw the disengagement from the Strip.

And though he didn’t say so explicitly, Gallant is not opposed to the Palestinian Authority playing a role in the management of the Gaza Strip after the war. (The defense minister cited unspecified “Palestinian entities,” who he said should govern with the backing of “international actors.) Netanyahu, in a response to Gallant’s speech, jumped on this position, declaring that as prime minister he “will not replace Hamastan with Fatahstan.” A Palestinian state would be, as Netanyahu presents it, a re-creation of Hamas.

There could have been a legitimate, substantive debate over how to get out of Gaza. But the charged relationship between the prime minister and the defense minister, and their mutual suspicion of each other, have now turned that into a personal dispute, a much more difficult situation.

We should also pay attention to the final words Netanyahu used in a response video he put out immediately after Gallant’s address. “There are no excuses,” the prime minister said. As Netanyahu tells it, Gallant and other cowardly critics are essentially looking for an excuse to get out of Gaza without having first destroyed Hamas.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir calls for “voluntary emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza and the resettling of Gaza by Israel at a march and rally in the town of Sderot close to the Gaza border, May 14, 2024. (Courtesy Office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir)

A fragile coalition

The third decision that Gallant demanded Netanyahu make is about the future of the government: Which side are you on, the defense minister asked in essence? Will you stand with me, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, or are you going with far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir? That was the subtext to his call for “advancing the national interest over all other interests, even if this requires paying personal or political costs.”

A decision by Netanyahu to place the governance of Gaza in the hands of the Palestinian Authority would mean a confrontation with Smotrich and Ben Gvir, the latter of whom addressed a large crowd of settlers in Sderot on Independence Day earlier this week and called for the immediate settlement of all parts of the Gaza Strip.

Any operative decision by Netanyahu to fully withdraw from Gaza would inevitably lead the far-right ministers’ parties, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, to exit the coalition. This threat hangs over Netanyahu’s head. For now, he is with them, whether he wants to be or not.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich demanded this week that Netanyahu fire Gallant. Sources in Likud who identify with the settlements have dubbed the defense minister a “Trojan horse.”

But Netanyahu can’t fire Gallant. Netanyahu isn’t as strong as he was when he fired previous defense ministers Yitzhak Mordechai and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. Here, too, he has no choice; he will have to endure this revolt for now.

Meanwhile, it seems that other leaders in Likud smell weakness, and are beginning to gather courage.

Minister Nir Barkat said in a government meeting this week a little of what he always says behind closed doors, about the absolute responsibility of Netanyahu for the failure on October 7 and the endless wavering in Gaza.

Yuli Edelstein, who chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, declared that the committee will only pass genuinely potent legislation to draft the ultra-Orthodox, and not the bluff of a bill that was advanced by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Thursday.

The key question is whether we are witnessing a true erosion of Netanyahu’s standing in Likud. So far it doesn’t seem like it.

Gallant, Barkat and Edelstein are rivals of one another, and each of them is playing his own game. Netanyahu can handle them and any others in the party.

If Likud were to slide further in the polls, though, toward 15 mandates or fewer, that would be a different story.

This article is translated from the original Hebrew on Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site

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