Gantz’s entry into government sidelines far right, with judicial overhaul’s future dim

Former IDF chief of staff has leveraged government’s need for broader political legitimacy and military experience to achieve a role of real influence

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks during a party conference in Drom HaSharon Regional Council, September 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks during a party conference in Drom HaSharon Regional Council, September 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The formation of an emergency war government on Wednesday with the entry of Benny Gantz and his National Unity party has achieved what many in the country had been demanding ever since Hamas’s brutal assault on the country on Saturday: a broader, more representative government for the nation as it faces arguably the worst disaster since its founding.

But beyond the symbolism of Gantz’s decision to bring his party into the government — an unthinkable scenario this time last week — the mechanics of the reshaped administration will have major implications for two issues: the political management of the war and the judicial overhaul program which has so severely divided the nation over the past nine months.

Gantz’s central demand for entering the government was the creation of a narrow “war cabinet” that would direct the conflict, a stipulation designed to give him significant influence on the decision-making process and to reduce that of the coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties.

The former defense minister and IDF chief of staff appears to have been successful in both respects.

The war cabinet that will be composed of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Gantz is indeed tiny, especially compared to the 10-member security cabinet, which usually oversees security-based decisions (the war cabinet will include two additional observers: National Unity MK Gadi Eisenkot, another former IDF chief of staff, and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer).

According to the document signed by the sides Wednesday, the war cabinet will be authorized by the security cabinet to determine the goals of the current campaign on all fronts, give operational orders to security forces to carry out the necessary military actions, formulate exit strategies and be given further powers.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz arrives for a behind-closed-doors meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, October 9, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

In short, according to the agreement, this forum is in charge, offering Gantz very substantial influence, and responsibility, for how the war is conducted.

Critically for Gantz, it also sidelines far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit.

Both are members of the security cabinet, but will now seemingly have little direct influence over the conduct of the war. Gantz was eager to achieve this goal both so that he could be sure the war would be managed responsibly and also because of their political toxicity to Gantz’s moderate, center-right electorate.

Gantz and his party will also gain significant influence over powers that will remain with the security cabinet, including matters of internal security which are in Ben Gvir’s wheelhouse, since four National Unity members will be given a spot on that body, diluting the far right’s influence.

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also notable in the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement is the decision to leave open a spot in the war cabinet for Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, chair of the Yesh Atid party.

Although Lapid has so far refused to join a government while Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit remain members, the decision gives Lapid the ability to rethink and the emergency government the possibility of broadening the coalition even further.

The agreement does not, however, leave a potential spot for Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the war cabinet, even if he decides to join the government.

The other crucial aspect of the emergency government agreement is that legislation and government resolutions cannot be made without Gantz on anything other than security and diplomatic matters and issues pertaining to keeping the country running.

The government’s judicial overhaul plan, which roiled the nation and tore great gashes within Israeli society for the better part of a year, has thus officially been shelved for now, and very possibly for good.

The catastrophic failures of the military, intelligence community and government that enabled Hamas to carry out its savage attack have already put the political future of the current government and Netanyahu in particular in severe doubt, once the war ends.

Once the fighting is over, the recriminations will begin in earnest and the government will have no political capital to advance what was an already incredibly divisive set of policies.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony for the 24th Knesset, April 6, 2021. (Knesset spokesperson)

In insisting on achievable demands, Gantz has managed to take on the mantle of a responsible political leader and avoid the appearance of playing politics at a time of severe national crisis.

As for Lapid, it never seemed likely that Netanyahu would accede to his demand to boot Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit from the government in order for the opposition leader to join, and that demand has essentially left the opposition leader out in the cold.

Gantz is taking a political risk by taking on responsibility henceforth for the fallout from a disaster that occurred under someone else’s watch. But he can also legitimately claim to have sidelined extremists during a time of need through the formation of the war cabinet, and thus preserved his standing as a centrist moderate. That makes his move now very different from his decision to join with Netanyahu in 2020 for their ill-fated unity government. Then he was painted by many in the center-left as a sell-out. Now, many seem to view him as a savior.

And politics aside, it must now be hoped that his experience as IDF chief of staff and defense minister, together with that of Eisenkot, will truly boost the government’s ability to successfully steer this war and defeat the barbaric enemy that initiated it.

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