Opposition welcomes Gantz’s return with lukewarm response as PM urges him to reconsider

Lapid cheers National Unity head’s decision to quit government but Liberman dismisses it as ‘too little too late’; far-right leaders vie for his spot in war cabinet; Gallant silent

File - War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz (standing), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
File - War cabinet Minister Benny Gantz (standing), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a press conference at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked National Unity party leader Benny Gantz to reconsider his decision to leave the government, in a statement published while the latter was still speaking on Sunday evening.

“Israel is in an existential war on multiple fronts,” Netanyahu wrote on X. “Benny, this is not the time to abandon the campaign — this is the time to join forces.”

Gantz, in his live address, accused Netanyahu of “preventing us from reaching true victory,” while delivering “empty promises” to Israelis.

Despite Gantz’s withdrawal, Netanyahu promised to keep prosecuting the war in Gaza until all of the military campaign’s goals are achieved, “primarily the release of hostages and the elimination of Hamas.”

“My door will remain open to any Zionist party willing to shoulder the burden and help attain victory over our enemies, and ensure the safety of our citizens,” he added.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, meanwhile, wasted no time in writing to Netanyahu demanding that he open the war cabinet to new members — specifically himself.

In a letter posted on social media, the ultranationalist minister said the war cabinet’s makeup — which until now had been comprised of Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant — had only included ministers who followed the military’s accepted conceptual wisdom, with other members of the government ignored and blackballed.

It is time to bring in ministers who “warned in real-time against the conception and viewpoint that everyone today accepts was wrong,” wrote Ben Gvir, demanding that he be added to the key decision-making forum.

Ben Gvir, widely seen as a firebrand reactionary, had indicated earlier on Sunday that he planned to jockey for greater power for himself and his far-right party Otzma Yehudit in the wake of Gantz’s resignation.

“It’s time to make decisive, courageous decisions,” he wrote.

His fellow far-right lawmaker, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, also appeared to be vying for a place in the war cabinet.

In a statement released shortly after Gantz finished speaking, Smotrich claimed that in the days after the shock Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught, when the National Unity leader joined the government in a show of unity, he “agreed to step aside and be excluded from war management.”

“Since then, I have backed quite a few decisions that I really disagree with, simply because unity is more essential to victory than quibbling over which move will be more or less correct,” the far-right leader asserted, while denouncing Gantz’s withdrawal from the government as irresponsible and accusing him of doing so “for political reasons.”

“There is nothing less statesmanlike than resigning from government in a time of war,” Smotrich continued, and while charing “this is exactly what [Hamas Gaza chief Yahya] Sinwar, [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and Iran were aiming for.”

He echoed Netanyahu’s request for “all leaders of Zionist parties for whom the State of Israel is important to join the unity government.”

Shas leader Arye Deri, who on Saturday made a last-ditch attempt to persuade Gantz to remain in government, said he “deeply regretted”the National Unity party’s resignation and asked Gantz if he couldn’t set differences aside again and reconsider his decision.

“This is not the time for political bickering or an election campaign that will divide the people,” Deri, an observer in the war cabinet, said in his appeal.

There was no immediate public response from Gallant, who like Gantz has recently been at loggerheads with Netanyahu over the premier’s refusal to lay out a clear vision for Gaza’s post-war governance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Galant, and Minister Benny Gantz hold a joint press conference at the Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv on November 11, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

On the other side of the aisle, some opposition members welcomed Gantz’s announcement while others questioned why he and his National Unity party waited until now to rejoin them.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid welcomed Gantz back to the fold, calling his decision “important and correct.”

“It’s time to replace this extremist and failing government with a government that will restore security for the people of Israel, bring the hostages home, rebuild the economy and restore Israel’s international standing,” Lapid said.

Hawkish Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, welcomed Gantz back dryly, writing on X that it was “better late than never” and declaring it the right time to form “a Zionist coalition.”

In a critical statement, new Labor Party leader Yair Golan said he had “no doubt that on a personal level Benny Gantz had good intentions,” but that his decision to resign from government came “too late.”

“Benny Gantz and National Unity have direct responsibility for everything that has happened in the country since they joined the government,” charged Golan.

“Benny Gantz’s decision to give artificial resuscitation to the most dangerous and extreme government in the country’s history turned out to be a serious strategic error,” Golan added, accusing Gantz of legitimizing a government of “fascists and Kahanists.”

File – Gadi Eisenkot (left) and Benny Gantz at the launch of the new National Unity party, August 14, 2022, in Kfar Maccabiah. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Following Gantz’s exit from the government, and National Unity MK’s Gadi Eisenkot’s corresponding resignation as an observer in the war cabinet, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said the change to panel’s makeup after eight months should not affect support for a deal to free to the hostages  and halt the fighting in Gaza.

“The Netanyahu deal is still on the table, and only it can return all the hostages: The living to rehabilitation and the dead to burial,” the forum said, using its name for an Israeli proposal recently unveiled by US President Joe Biden.

The families also repeated their call for the government to approve a deal, in spite of Hamas’s indication that it will not agree to the terms without a commitment to completely end the war.

In his resignation speech, Gantz committed to throwing his support behind “every responsible plan” regarding the hostages, and apologized for not being able to do more over the last eight months.

“We did a lot [but] failed when it came to results,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get many of them back home yet. The responsibility is also mine.”

The departure of Gantz and his National Unity party reduces the Netanyahu-led government to its original five factions — his right-wing Likud party, far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, and ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism.

They hold a total of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and therefore the loss of Gantz’s eight-strong party does not deprive the coalition of its parliamentary majority.

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