Netanyahu said fuming over Gantz trip to US planned without his approval

War cabinet minister, main political rival of PM, to meet VP Harris, top officials; in tense call between the two, premier reportedly snarks: Israel ‘has only one prime minister’

Minister Benny Gantz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Minister Benny Gantz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz was set to travel to Washington for talks with senior officials on Sunday, reportedly infuriating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who did not authorize the trip and was said to chastise him that the country has only one premier.

Among those Gantz will meet are US Vice President Kamala Harris, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Republican and Democratic members of US Congress, his office said in a statement Saturday.

Details of the trip, and an allegedly tense phone conversation between Netanyahu and Gantz about the visit, were first reported earlier by the Ynet outlet.

Netanyahu was said to have been unaware of the visit until Gantz, who leads the National Unity party, called him on Friday to let the prime minister know of his plans and to discuss what messages to convey to the Americans.

A source close to Netanyahu said the premier “made it clear to Minister Gantz that the State of Israel only has one prime minister,” Ynet reported.

The source said the trip was organized without the prime minister’s approval and contrary to government regulations that require “every minister to clear travel in advance with the prime minister, including approval of the travel plan.”

File: Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meet at the White House in Washington, May 19, 2022. (Shmulik Almany/GPO)

However, the Saturday statement from Gantz’s office confirmed the trip was going ahead and gave details on the upcoming meetings.

“Minister Gantz personally updated the prime minister on his own initiative on Friday of his intention to travel, in order to coordinate the messages to be transmitted in the meetings,” Gantz’s office said.

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks as she meets with voting rights leaders, in the Indian Treaty Room, of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex in Washington, February 27, 2024. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

A former military chief and defense minister, Gantz is Netanyahu’s main political rival in opinion polls. Gantz brought his National Unity party into the government after the October 7 attack by Palestinian terror group Hamas that triggered the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-led shock attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, amid horrific atrocities including rape, torture, and mutilation of victims. Terrorists also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages in Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group, and free the hostages, over half of whom are still in captivity, among them over two dozen dead.

In the US, Gantz intends to advocate the legitimacy of the military operation in the Gaza Strip, and the promotion of a security arrangement in Lebanon as well as discuss efforts to reach a deal for the release of the hostages, according to his office.

He will also hold talks on preserving US aid to Israel and strengthening the strategic alliance between the two countries.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz (right) and his National Unity party colleague Hili Tropper participate in a march urging a deal to secure the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, near Beit Shemesh on March 1, 2024. They are helping to carry a stretcher, highlighting the focus of the march that day on the plight of soldiers among the hostages. (Office of Benny Gantz)

Gantz was also to travel to London from Washington. His political party is paying for the entire trip, Ynet reported.

His visit to the US comes as the Biden administration has grown increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu and his government which is seen as beholden to its far-right members.

Biden said earlier this week that Israel was going to lose international support if it maintains its “incredibly conservative government.”

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released March 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The US says it is determined to reach a deal that would temporarily halt the fighting in Gaza and release the hostages taken by terrorists on October 7.

A White House official confirmed that Gantz will meet Harris and that the talks are expected to span topics including reducing Palestinian civilian casualties, securing a temporary ceasefire, the release of hostages held in Gaza, and increasing aid to the territory.

International mediators have been working for weeks to broker a deal to pause the fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins March 10. A proposed framework on the table includes the release of about 40 hostages taken on October 7, among them women, children, elderly and ill abductees, and female soldiers in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting and the release of Palestinian security prisoners. Israel has mostly accepted the framework and has slammed Hamas for its “delusional” demands that are holding up an agreement.

A White House official said Harris “will express her concern over the safety of the as many as 1.5 million people in Rafah,” the official said, adding that Israel also had a “right to defend itself in the face of continued Hamas terrorist threats.”

Israel is poised for a major offensive in the city of Rafah, the last major Hamas stronghold that has not yet been assaulted by Israel Defense Forces ground operation in Gaza. The city’s population has swollen with tens of thousands who fled from fighting in other areas of the Palestinian enclave raising international concerns for the safety of civilians if the IDF offensive goes ahead. The US has demanded that Israel ensure evacuation routes to safe areas for civilians.

Harris and Gantz will also discuss planning for after the war ends to revitalize Gaza under the Palestinian Authority, the White House official said.

The US military on Saturday carried out its first airdrop of humanitarian aid into Gaza and aid agencies warned of a growing humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave as Israel pressed on with its offensive.

Plans for the US airdrop were announced by Biden on Friday, a day after dozens of Palestinians were killed in a dispute incident while preparing to receive humanitarian aid from a convoy of trucks in Gaza City. Israel says they were killed in a crowd crush and by trucks running them mover amid the chaos, while Hamas blames Israel for the deaths and accused Israeli troops of opening fire at the crowd. The incident drew renewed attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, as the war grinds on.

International pressure for a ceasefire has grown as the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far. The figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed more than 13,000 Hamas operatives in addition to another 1,000 killed inside Israel on October 7. Since the start of a ground offensive in Gaza in late October, 245 IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

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