Netanyahu urges Gantz not to bolt government in wake of successful hostage rescue

PM issues public plea after National Unity party chief calls off announcement of anticipated departure from emergency coalition; Gantz to reassess before deciding on next steps

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)
Then-defense minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a consultation during Hamas rocket fire at Israel and IDF counterstrikes, May 11, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO / File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening issued a plea for war cabinet minister Benny Gantz to set aside his plans to bolt the emergency government, as the war cabinet minister was widely expected to do so before the successful rescue of four living hostages from Gaza.

“This is the time for unity and not for division,” the premier wrote on X. “We must stay unified among ourselves in the face of the big tasks ahead of us. I call on Benny Gantz — don’t leave the emergency government. Don’t give up on unity.”

In a statement issued minutes later, Gantz responded that “alongside the justified joy in the achievement, we must remember that all the challenges Israel faces have remained as they were. Therefore, I tell the prime minister and the entire leadership — today, too, we must consider responsibly how it is best and possible to continue from here.”

Earlier in the day, Gantz canceled a news conference planned for the evening, during which he was expected to announce his National Unity party was leaving the government.

In a May 18 speech, Gantz issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, demanding the premier present an agreed-upon vision for Gaza’s post-war governance. If Netanyahu failed to do so by June 8, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff threatened to pull his centrist party out of the government.

Gantz’s decision to delay his exit from the coalition came after the military’s surprise announcement Saturday afternoon that special forces operating in central Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp rescued four hostages kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from the Supernova musical festival near Kibbutz Re’im: Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, Andrey Kozlov, and Shlomi Ziv. Initial assessments found them to be in good condition, and they were taken for further evaluation at a hospital, where they were reunited with their families after eight months in captivity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with rescued hostage Andrey Kozlov at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, June 8, 2024. (Maayan Toaf / GPO)

Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri, an observer in the war cabinet, also called on Gantz not to leave the emergency coalition, promising that the government “will continue to do everything to return all the hostages home.”

“This is not the time for elections,” he said, stating that “Israel is still in the middle of a challenging campaign in the south and in the north and internal unity among us is critical in the continuation of the war, on the frontlines and on the home front.”

Meanwhile, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir argued the rescue mission showed it was unnecessary to reach a deal with Hamas to bring home hostages.

“The heroic action of the Yamam and the other security forces shows that there is hope and it is possible to defeat [our] enemies and return the abductees home and not to capitulate,” said Ben Gvir in a statement.

It was not immediately clear if Gantz would reschedule the press conference for another time. The Kan public broadcaster reported that Gantz would reassess on Sunday, and could wait until after the Shavuot holiday on Wednesday to leave the government. Netanyahu’s decisions in the coming days would also affect Gantz’s decisions, according to the report.

The National Unity party joined the government days after October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists who stormed into southern Israel killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 251 hostages into the Gaza Strip, sparking the ongoing war in the enclave.

Upon entering the government, Gantz was made a member of a newly founded narrow war cabinet, while the party’s No. 2, fellow former military chief Gadi Eisenkot, became an observer. New Hope, an erstwhile right-leaning faction of the centrist party, quit the government in March, after its leader Gideon Sa’ar’s demand for a spot on the war cabinet went ignored.

Hostages rescued in an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip on June 8: Shlomi Ziv (top left), Andrey Kozlov (top right), Almog Meir Jan (bottom left), and Noa Argamani.

After joining the government, opinion polls showed Gantz’s popularity soaring compared with Netanyahu’s. However, recent surveys have found him shedding support, with one recent television poll showing that Netanyahu had surpassed Gantz as the more popular choice for prime minister for the first time in a year. The news network surmised that the dip was a result of Gantz’s ultimatum to Netanyahu, which led the centrist leader to lose support he had accrued with his statesmanlike decision to join the government after October 7.

National Unity’s exit would not topple the government, which holds 64 of 120 Knesset seats without the centrist party. Gantz has come under pressure to remain in the government as a counterweight to Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who fiercely oppose an end to the fighting in Gaza, even as part of a deal to release the hostages.

It is believed that 116 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released before that.

Rescued hostage Noa Argamani is seen reunited with her father, June 8, 2024. (Courtesy)

Seven hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 19 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 41 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown. Hamas has also been holding two Israeli civilians who entered the Strip in 2014 and 2015, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers who were killed in 2014.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report. 

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