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Israel’s Wartime Government Just Collapsed. Does It Matter?

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On Sunday evening, Israel’s government was hit with its biggest internal shock since October 7. Benny Gantz, a centrist opposition leader, announced his party’s departure from the country’s emergency war government. In a prime-time speech to the Israeli public, the former general rapped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for putting his personal interest ahead of the national interest, saying that “fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitation and procrastination due to political considerations.” Gantz’s move made news around the world, as many observers asked if it heralded the beginning of the end of Netanyahu’s rule. But there is less to this drama than the headlines suggest.

The reason for this is Israeli political math. At a glance, the numbers would seem to favor Gantz: The parties in Netanyahu’s current coalition are unpopular; they did not receive a majority of the vote in Israel’s November 2022 election, and only took power thanks to a quirk of the country’s electoral system. Well before October 7, polls were finding that Gantz’s party would receive the most votes if new elections were held, while Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose much of its support. Since October 7, large majorities of Israelis have said they want early elections, and most surveys find that Gantz—a political pragmatist, Biden ally, and former chief of the Israel Defense Forces—leads Netanyahu as the preferred candidate for prime minister in those elections. Sixty-two percent of Israelis say they won’t vote for any party that backs Netanyahu for leadership.

But Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about any of these numbers, because he has the only figure on his side that matters: 64. That’s how many seats his coalition holds in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament, and it’s enough to prevent the body from calling early elections in the first place. The prime minister may not have the support of the Israeli public, but so long as he has a majority in the Knesset, barring any internal defections, no one can force him to face his rivals before the currently scheduled elections in 2026.

Gantz has run against Netanyahu in multiple bitterly contested elections, but he joined forces with him after October 7 in an attempt to provide consensus governance during Israel’s war with Hamas and moderate the influence of far-right parties on the military effort. That alliance has been fraying for some time, however. Gantz warned last month that he would leave the government if Netanyahu did not present a credible plan for Palestinian governance in postwar Gaza. Israel’s security establishment and Netanyahu’s own defense minister, Yoav Gallant, expressed similar concerns. But Netanyahu dismissed Gantz’s ultimatum without substantive response, and so on Sunday, Gantz made good on his threat and left the prime minister with his original hard-right coalition.

In other words, Gantz’s departure is less a governmental death blow than a return to the pre–October 7 status quo—except that much more is now at stake. Before the Hamas massacre, Netanyahu was largely at the mercy of his hard-right partners, without whom he could not remain in office. This dynamic led to a surge of extreme legislation that nearly tore Israel apart. Since October, Gantz and his party have mitigated the far right’s influence, enabling Israel to broker its first hostage deal with Hamas in November, despite vocal opposition from the coalition’s hard-liners. “Just like hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis after October 7, my colleagues and I mobilized as well,” Gantz said in his speech yesterday, “even though we knew it was a bad government. We did it because we knew it was a bad government.”

Gantz’s influence has been felt in other ways. It’s unlikely that Israel would have advanced the wide-ranging cease-fire and hostage-deal proposal recently touted by President Joe Biden absent persistent pressure from Gantz and his allies. In his departure speech, the centrist politician threw his full support behind that plan, leading The Washington Post to suggest that Gantz’s move “increases the political pressure on Netanyahu to accept a Gaza cease-fire proposal that would bring home the hostages still held by Hamas.” But the reality is the opposite: Gantz’s retreat relieves the strongest internal impetus to strike the deal, ceding the field to the far-right parties that remain in the coalition. Ever since Biden made Netanyahu’s proposal public, the Israeli prime minister has come under immense pressure from those parties to torpedo it. With Gantz no longer in the room, their influence will only grow. Netanyahu is now the moderate in his own coalition—which is largely a commentary on just how extreme it is.

What the far right wants is not a secret: to fight Hamas to the bitter end with no further hostage deals; to expel Gazans and resettle the Gaza Strip; to halt humanitarian assistance to the enclave; to collapse the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank; and to invade Lebanon, from which the terrorist group Hezbollah has been bombarding Israel, causing the evacuation of some 60,000 Israelis from their homes. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national-security minister whose close associates were recently targeted with U.S. sanctions for violence against Palestinians, wasted no time after Gantz’s departure in demanding that he and other far-right politicians be added to Israel’s war cabinet, and that Netanyahu end Israel’s policy of providing fuel and humanitarian aid to Gaza. Meanwhile, Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who once called to “wipe out” a Palestinian village, accused Gantz of attempting to advance a Palestinian state and reiterated his demand for Israel to strike Lebanon.

With Gantz gone, the role of counterbalancing these voices will fall to three actors: Israel’s supreme court, which regularly strikes down far-right overreach; the Biden administration, which has hit the far right with escalating sanctions; and Gallant, who has been Biden’s ally on the inside for months, and who repeatedly rebuked Netanyahu’s kowtowing to his hard-line partners.

That troika will have one thing going for it: the preferences of the Israeli public. Most Israelis support the cease-fire and hostage deal promoted by President Biden. Most Israelis oppose resettling Gaza. Most Israelis want Netanyahu out of office. But with Gantz gone, those Israelis no longer have a voice in the current Israeli government. The coalition does still face some internal threats to its cohesion, and Gantz’s departure will likely increase public pressure and protests to hold new elections. But in the short term, unless Hamas accepts the cease-fire deal on the table and forces Netanyahu to choose between his coalition and the remaining Israeli hostages, the numbers still add up to continued Netanyahu rule.

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