Israeli Defence Minister’s U.S. trip deepens rift in Netanyahu’s cabinet amid Gaza conflict

Defence Minister Benny Gantz

3rd March 2024 – (Washington) Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz embarked on an unsanctioned trip to Washington on Sunday for high-level discussions with U.S. officials. This action has elicited a stern reprimand from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, exposing growing fissures within Israel’s wartime administration as it approaches its fifth month of conflict with Hamas.

Minister Gantz, a central figure in Israeli politics whose alliance with Netanyahu’s hard-line government was forged in the early days of the war following the Hamas assault on 7th October, has departed amidst escalating tensions between Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. The central point of contention is the approach towards mitigating Palestinian suffering in Gaza and shaping a sustainable post-war landscape for the region.

Parallel to Gantz’s visit, diplomatic efforts have intensified in Egypt with international mediators striving to secure a Gaza cease-fire ahead of Ramadan. The U.S. has taken proactive measures, delivering airdrops of aid into Gaza on Saturday, bypassing an Israeli-controlled distribution system beset by constraints and the ongoing conflict within the enclave. These airdrops, while critical, are a stop-gap measure compared to the preferred truck deliveries.

Within Netanyahu’s cabinet, ultra-nationalists exercise considerable influence, often clashing with Gantz’s more moderate party. An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party, insisting on anonymity, conveyed the Prime Minister’s disapproval of Gantz’s visit, which Netanyahu perceives as undermining his singular prime ministerial authority.

Despite the internal discord, an Israeli official, who also requested anonymity, stated Gantz had notified the Prime Minister prior to his departure. The Defence Minister’s agenda in Washington is geared towards reinforcing U.S.-Israeli ties, advocating for Israel’s military campaign, and negotiating the release of Israeli captives in Gaza. Gantz is scheduled to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, as per his National Unity party.

The ongoing conflict has significantly eroded Netanyahu’s popularity, with public opinion polls reflecting dissatisfaction over his handling of the crisis. The war has resulted in substantial casualties and abductions, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Critics accuse Netanyahu of allowing political calculations to cloud his judgement, a claim he refutes. The U.S. administration’s push for progress towards Palestinian statehood starkly contrasts with Netanyahu’s vision of maintaining Israeli security oversight in Gaza, a stance that has drawn criticism from within his own cabinet.

The looming deadline for a new bill to expand military conscription among ultra-Orthodox Jews, traditionally exempted for religious study, adds further strain to a government already confronting challenges. The Israeli military, suffering losses since the war’s inception, is urgently seeking to bolster its ranks.

Gantz, who according to polls could potentially unseat Netanyahu as Prime Minister, has thus far remained ambiguous on the issue of Palestinian statehood. His visit to the U.S. comes at a critical juncture, with potential developments on the hostage situation poised to amplify his political standing.

Israel has signalled its conditional approval of a Gaza cease-fire and hostage release framework, with the ball now in Hamas’s court, a senior U.S. official indicated on Saturday under White House-imposed anonymity.

Meanwhile, domestic support for Netanyahu wanes as protests calling for early elections gain momentum. The Israeli public, initially united in self-defence following Hamas’s attack, is increasingly vocal in their discontent with the government’s direction.

Professor Reuven Hazan of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University warns that the burgeoning rifts within the coalition, combined with pre-existing public grievances, could trigger significant unrest.