Centrist leader: Israel deserves more than 'empty promises'

Gantz quits war government, says PM preventing ‘true victory’ over Hamas, urges elections

National Unity leader slams Netanyahu’s politicking and hesitation, vows to back hostage deal proposal and do the right thing ‘at any political cost’; coalition still has majority

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

National Unity chairman Benny Gantz announces his party's withdrawal from the government during a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah, June 9, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)
National Unity chairman Benny Gantz announces his party's withdrawal from the government during a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah, June 9, 2024. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of preventing Israel from achieving “true victory” in its war against Hamas, National Unity chairman Benny Gantz announced his party’s long-anticipated withdrawal from the government on Sunday evening, weeks after conditioning his continued support on the prime minister’s acceptance of an agreed-upon vision for the Gaza conflict by June 8.

“After October 7, just like hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis, my colleagues and I mobilized as well” and joined the coalition, “even though we knew it was a bad government,” said Gantz, one of three voting members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

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

“We did it because we knew it was a bad government. The people of Israel, the fighters, the commanders, the families of the murdered, the casualties and the hostages needed unity and support like they needed air to breathe,” Gantz explained.

However, Netanyahu’s talk of unity had hidden a reality in which “fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitation and procrastination due to [narrow] political considerations,” he alleged, intimating that the prime minister prioritizes appeasing his far-right coalition partners. Quitting the coalition was “a complex and agonizing decision,” said Gantz, but one that he had made “for the good of the State of Israel.”

“Unfortunately, Netanyahu prevents us from progressing to real victory,” Gantz claimed, adding that as a result, “we are leaving the emergency government today with a heavy heart but wholeheartedly.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv, early morning on April 14, 2024. (Courtesy)

An appeal to remain

As Gantz was speaking, Netanyahu called on his erstwhile coalition partner to reconsider.

“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.”

Promising to keep going until victory and the attainment of all the war aims, “primarily the release of hostages and the elimination of Hamas,” Netanyahu stated that his “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.”

Netanyahu’s appeal was unsuccessful, with Gantz and fellow National Unity ministers Gadi Eisenkot and Chili Tropper all submitting resignation letters following the announcement.

In his resignation letter, Eisenkot had harsh words for the way the war cabinet handled itself during the war.

“Despite the efforts of many, alongside those of my colleague, the cabinet you headed was prevented for a long while from making key decisions, which were needed to realize the war’s goals and improve Israel’s strategic position,” wrote Eisenkot, who like Gantz is a former IDF chief of staff.

“Outside considerations and politics infiltrated the discussions,” he charged. “Therefore, it’s time we left the government.”

Their exit from the coalition came a day after the passage of a self-imposed deadline to leave the government, which Gantz had set last month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, June 9, 2024 (Screen grab)

In mid-May, Gantz went on television to issue an ultimatum to Netanyahu, threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless the premier committed to “a plan of action” to accomplish a number of goals by June 8 — including advancing normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia and “creat[ing] an international civilian governance mechanism for Gaza.”

Netanyahu quickly dismissed and never entertained Gantz’s demands.

Gantz’s party later submitted legislation to dissolve the Knesset, in a clear indication that the alliance was nearing its end.

The reality facing Israel “is not simple” and the [military] campaign will take years,” Gantz warned on Sunday. “I won’t promise you easy and rapid victory.” But, he said, the people of Israel deserved more than “empty promises.”

“True victory,” he said, meant among other things the prioritized return of the hostages, the destruction and replacement of Hamas in Gaza, the return of displaced residents of the north to their homes, and the solidifying of a US-led alliance against Iran.

Gantz also said that true victory requires new national elections by the fall, in order to establish “a government that will win the people’s trust and be able to face [Israel’s] challenges.”

“I call on Netanyahu: Set an agreed election date. Don’t let our people be torn apart,” he said, echoing his April appeal to hold early elections by September. Netanyahu and his remaining coalition partners contend that a national vote shouldn’t be held while the war is ongoing.

Gantz also called on all other members of the Knesset “who understand where we are going” to join him and “obey the command of your conscience,” particularly Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Netanyahu’s Likud, who has been seen as aligned with Gantz on most issues and has periodically spoken out against government policy.

“You are a brave and determined leader and above all – a patriot. At this time, leadership and courage are not only saying what is right – but doing what is right,” he said of Gallant.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits the IDF’s Northern Command, May 29, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Sunday’s announcement had been rescheduled, after Gantz canceled a Saturday evening press conference due to the military’s surprise announcement earlier in the day that special forces operating in central Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp had rescued four hostages kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

The postponement appeared to be a tactical choice in light of the operation, not a change in his plan to leave the coalition.

National Unity’s exit will not topple the government, which still holds 64 of 120 Knesset seats without the centrist party. Gantz had been 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.

Tensions steadily grew since Gantz joined the emergency government, with most opinion polls in recent months showing Gantz being preferred over Netanyahu when asked who is better fit to be prime minister. The two have sparred over issues ranging from the post-war order in Gaza to the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

National Unity has been predicted in virtually all surveys to become the largest Knesset party if elections were held now, with the current coalition parties continuously projected to fall far short of a majority in the parliament.

Ben Gvir sees an advantage

While Netanyahu has urged Gantz to remain in the government, Ben Gvir appeared ready to take advantage of National Unity’s departure, stating on Sunday afternoon that he would demand increased say over government decisions after Gantz’s exit, including in the war cabinet.

In a letter to Netanyahu posted on social media following Gantz’s announcement, Ben Gvir insisted that he be added to the body, stating that it was time to bring in ministers who “warned in real-time against the conception and viewpoint that everyone today accepts was wrong.”

Fellow hard-right politician Bezalel Smotrich also criticized Gantz following his exit, tweeting that his move “aimed at dismantling [the government’s] cohesion for political reasons and is irresponsible.”

“There is no less stately act than resigning from a government in time of war,” he wrote, charging that it was serving Israel’s enemies.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, June 5, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Not a politician

During his announcement, Gantz insisted that he was neither a conman nor a politician who would put his political career above the needs of the state.

“I will promise you one thing: I’m prepared to die for your children,” he said. “My colleagues and will always stand up and be counted on when the country needs us… at any political price. I risked my life for the state in the line of fire dozens of times,” he added.

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid (left) and National Unity head MK Benny Gantz in the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz’s exit was welcomed by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who called the decision “both justified and important.”

“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.

The hostages

Gantz also apologized to the families of the 120 remaining hostages for failing to save their loved ones.

“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.”

Gantz also offered full-throated backing for the proposal approved by the war cabinet aimed at freeing the rest of the abductees, as presented by US President Joe Biden and conveyed to Hamas, demanding from Netanyahu “the necessary courage to stand behind it and do everything to advance it.” He promised to support any such move even from the opposition.

Protesters at Paris Square in Jerusalem call for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, June 8, 2024. (Tali Hill/Pro-Democracy Movement)

“If we stay strong within, we will defeat any enemy,” he says. “For that, we must [investigate], choose and come together,” he concludes, referencing the imperative to probe the October 7 disaster, to hold new elections, and to unify as a nation.

Asked by a reporter whether his departure would not merely strengthen the influence of the far-right in the coalition, Gantz did not directly answer the question, but said: “I fear for the State of Israel. We know the fighting will go on for a long time… many years. So we need to choose the correct priorities, the correct [battle] fronts, the correct [military] campaigns, and the correct unity.”

Times of Israel staff and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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