Ben Gvir: If war ends without Rafah op, PM will have to go

Government’s far-right flank fumes over Khan Younis withdrawal, talk of Gaza truce

Lapid: Netanyahu has ‘full safety net’ if Ben Gvir, Smotrich bolt coalition due to hostage deal; Smotrich convenes ‘urgent’ party consultation, slams cabinet-sidelining PM

File: Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (L) speaks to Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (L) speaks to Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s far-right flank signaled on Monday that it could pull support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the military’s withdrawal from southern Gaza.

As some diplomats expressed cautious optimism that negotiations in Cairo would succeed in securing a prisoner swap and truce between Israel and Hamas, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich convened his far-right Religious Zionism party for “urgent” consultation on the state of the war.

Smotrich also penned an angry letter to Netanyahu, in which he accused the premier of caving to international pressure and circumventing the cabinet on key points such as the withdrawal from Khan Younis.

Smotrich’s political ally on the far right, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, was even more explicit, threatening on X that “if the prime minister decides to end the war without a substantial attack on Rafah to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue as premier.”

Rafah, at the southern tip of Gaza, houses four Hamas battalions along with over a million civilians evacuated from other parts of the Strip. It’s also thought to be where Hamas leaders are hidden, possibly along with Israeli hostages. Plans to mount an offensive there have drawn intense international opposition.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said he would back up the premier if his far-right partners realized their threat.

Writing on X, Lapid said he was “reminding the prime minister and his messianic partners” that Yesh Atid would, “at any given moment,” lend its support to a hostage deal, noting that his party holds more Knesset seats than do the far-right members of Netanyahu’s government.

“It’s time to bring them home! Now!” wrote Lapid. “Twenty-four fingers is much more than what Ben Gvir and Smotrich have,” he added, referring to the number of seats his party holds in the Knesset, which is higher than Ben Gvir’s and Smotrich’s joint 14, out of Netanyahu’s current coalition of 72. The prime minister needs 61 — just over half in the 120-seat Knesset — in order to govern.

File: Head of Yesh Atid, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, speaks to supporters after retaining leadership of the party following its first contested primaries, in Tel Aviv, March 28, 2024. (Flash90)

The two far-right ministers were sidelined in the early days of the war, when Netanyahu’s chief rival for the premiership, Benny Gantz, joined the government with his centrist National Unity party. Netanyahu at the time accepted Gantz’s demand that a narrow cabinet, excluding the two rightwing firebrands, be established to guide the war.

Smotrich wrote the prime minister on Monday to demand he convene the wider cabinet to discuss the military’s withdrawal from southern Gaza’s Khan Younis.

“The only body empowered to make key decisions in wartime is the wider cabinet, but unfortunately that is not how things work,” Smotrich wrote.

“We see that decisions are made in the narrow cabinet without approval from or notification of the wider cabinet, under international pressures, which hurt the war’s momentum and our security interests,” he added.

Illustrative: troops of the Commando Brigade operate in the Khan Younis neighborhood of al-Amal, in a handout image published March 28, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Smotrich and Ben Gvir have both consistently opposed lifting military pressure on Gaza. Overruling harsh criticism from cabinet members, Ben Gvir voted against a November deal that secured the release of 105 hostages in return for 240 Palestinian prisoners and a weeklong truce.

Smotrich, who had originally opposed the deal, reversed his opposition after, he said, he became convinced that “repatriating hostages would advance the goals of the war.”

Smotrich and Ben Gvir have Netanyahu in a political bind given the premier’s virtual pariah status among nearly all political parties to the left of his Likud faction, effectively precluding the premier from forming a coalition without the two far-right ministers.

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