Knesset okays war cabinet; PM: Saturday ‘most horrible day for Jews since Holocaust’

5 National Unity ministers join government, including 2 former IDF chiefs of staff; Lapid accuses coalition of ‘unpardonable failure’; Health Ministry passes to Shas’s Uriel Buso

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a special Knesset plenum session presenting the new emergency government, in Jerusalem, October 12, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a special Knesset plenum session presenting the new emergency government, in Jerusalem, October 12, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Five opposition lawmakers joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet on Thursday, forming a national emergency government meant to add decades of high-level security experience to the management of the war and isolate far-right influence, six days into Israel’s fight against terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking from the Knesset rostrum, Netanyahu called the Hamas terror onslaught that massacred over 1,300 — the vast majority of them civilians — and wounded more than 3,000, triggering the war, “the most horrible day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” saying it would be hard to find someone unaffected by Hamas’s “barbarism.”

The Knesset voted to approve adding five National Unity ministers to the government, 66 for and four against. Amid the mounting wartime strain on the national health system, the plenum also approved Shas MK Uriel Buso’s elevation to health minister, by a vote of 65 for and 0 against, stripping the portfolio from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel.

The agreement added National Unity MKs Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot, Gideon Sa’ar, Chili Tropper and Yifat Shasha-Biton to the government, as ministers without portfolio. All will sit on the security cabinet, although Shasha-Biton will only hold observer status. Both Gantz and Eisenkot are former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, and Gantz is a former defense minister.

Gantz will also sit on a war cabinet with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Eisenkot and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, a Netanyahu confidant, will join the war cabinet as observers.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid made early overtures to form a unity government with Netanyahu, but was not part of the final deal. On Thursday, Lapid said that his Yesh Atid party would continue to support the war effort from outside the coalition, but he would not join the government because he does not believe it would work.

Opposition Leader and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 12, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

It is “a structure that can’t work, it’ll just add to the mess,” Lapid said in a press conference held before the new cabinet was sworn in, because “instead of one cabinet, [there are] two cabinets that will fight.”

Pushing to “take the extremists out of the government,” he said that “what happened this last Shabbat is an unpardonable failure,” and charged that those “who started the failure can’t fix it.”

National Unity and Likud agreed to reserve a spot for Lapid in the war cabinet, should he join the government in the future, according to the thin deal signed by Gantz and Netanyahu.

The IDF has set destroying Hamas’s military capabilities and eliminating its leadership as its goal for the war, which is expected to continue for months. For the past six days, the Israeli Air Force has hammered targets in the Gaza Strip, and the Hamas-run Health Ministry says over 1,300 have been killed.

Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel will “crush” and “eliminate” Hamas, comparing it to the brutal Islamic State group and echoing Gallant’s Wednesday assertion that Hamas “will be wiped off the face of the earth.”

“This,” Netanyahu said, “is a fight for our home.”

The premier added that “the Jewish people… have withstood dark challenges, perhaps more than any other nation. But we’ve never given up.”

Signaling a national pause on nine months of social unrest tied to his government’s judicial overhaul plans, the premier added: “We stand before this conflict together in internal fraternity and with mutual concern.”

Israel’s “national unity,” he said, “is sending a huge message, externally and internally.”

Victims of Hamas’s brutal attack against Israel laid out in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 11, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

With the expanded emergency government formally sworn in, the war cabinet is set to meet at least every 48 hours, according to Gantz and Netanyahu’s deal.

Among its various powers, the war cabinet can issue operational directives to security services, and can expand war goals after its first meeting.

In order to secure the deal, Gantz and Netanyahu committed to freezing all non-war related or non-emergency legislation, including bills related to the government’s contentious judicial overhaul package.

Ministers from Likud and National Unity applauded the deal, with Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar applauding Gantz, and new National Unity minister Sa’ar celebrating the move as giving broader support to make tough decisions.

“Hard decisions always need wide backing, and that’s what we’re doing today,” Sa’ar said to the Knesset floor.

Making an apparent jab at Yesh Atid for sitting out the emergency government, Sa’ar said, “Yes, it’s easier to support from the outside. You’re not carrying the heavy burden.”

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, October 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair, File)

In his remarks before the vote, Lapid pointed to three issues that prevented his party from joining the cabinet: the persistence of “extremists” in the hardline government, a double security cabinet structure without clear lines of authority, and the presence of those at fault for the “failure” to prevent Saturday’s crushing Hamas massacre, which triggered the war.

Lapid declined to name the extremists outright, but later in the speech pointed to far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, saying their presence in the government is part of “no way to make decisions.”

Ben Gvir and Smotrich sit on the security cabinet.

Lapid said it was a particular problem that Ben Gvir is in charge of the Israel Police and that Smotrich oversees the West Bank’s Civil Administration, especially as he has failed to condemn recent retributive Jewish violence in Palestinian towns.

“If I had thought that what is happening today is a real unity government, I would have done it,” Lapid said, adding that in the interim, “We’ll support every action, we’ll help every way we can.”

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