Blinken arrives in Middle East as US pushes for ceasefire vote at UN

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Still battling Israel’s external enemies on multiple fronts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awoke Monday to a new political battlefield at home.

The departure this weekend of Benny Gantz and his centrist National Unity party from Israel’s wartime emergency government is unlikely to immediately sever Netanyahu’s grip on power. The prime minister’s ruling coalition still holds a narrow majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

But Gantz’s move means Netanyahu is now totally dependent on his far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners as he presses ahead with the war in Gaza despite growing international opprobrium, leaving him increasingly isolated and exposed at home and abroad. .

Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, another powerful National Unity member, also left Netanyahu’s small war cabinet. They are both former military leaders who were widely seen as key voices of moderation in the five-member body, formed in October after the Hamas-led assault on Israel prompted an Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.

The two centrist politicians have sparked public confidence in government decision-making at a time of national trauma. They also gave the war cabinet an aura of legitimacy and consensus as Israel fought Hamas in Gaza, as well as its archenemy, Iran, and its other proxies, including the powerful Hezbollah militia along Israel’s northern border with the Lebanon.

Gantz accused Netanyahu of “political procrastination,” suggesting he had put off critical strategic decisions to ensure his political survival. His decision to leave the wartime government ushers in a new period of political instability and has left many Israelis wondering where the country will go from here on out.

Describing the political upheaval as “incredibly consequential,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem, said Israelis had already given the government low marks on a range of wartime issues . That includes managing the fighting and relations with the United States, Israel’s crucial ally, he said.

“With Gantz absent, I expect these ratings to become even lower,” Plesner said.

Gantz issued an ultimatum three weeks ago, warning Netanyahu that he would dissolve the emergency government unless the prime minister presented clear plans, including on who would replace Hamas as ruler of a post-war Gaza and how to return the dozens of hostages still detained in the Palestinian enclave.

A poster displayed in Tel Aviv on Monday calls for the release of hostages kidnapped during the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.Credit…Marko Djurica/Reuters

Gantz joined the government last October to foster a sense of unity in a time of crisis. He has joined forces with his political rival, Netanyahu, despite a deep lack of trust between the two and a history of betrayals. The last time Gantz entered a government with Netanyahu, in 2020, it also ended badly after Netanyahu broke their power-sharing agreement.

The influence of Gantz and Eisenkot, whose son, a soldier, was killed in December while fighting in Gaza, has waned in recent months, leading many Israelis to ask why they hadn’t left the emergency government sooner and joined to the opposition. . Gantz has called for early elections this fall.

Netanyahu’s remaining formal partners in the war cabinet are his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a rival within his conservative Likud party who Netanyahu tried to fire last year; and Ron Dermer, a seasoned Netanyahu confidant with more diplomatic than political experience. It is unclear whether the war cabinet will continue to function.

A separate, larger security cabinet includes two ultranationalist party leaders: Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of national security, and Bezalel Smotrich, minister of finance. Both want to resettle Gaza with the Israelis.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have both vowed to topple Netanyahu’s government if it proceeds with an Israeli proposal for a deal including a truce and hostage exchange for Palestinian prisoners, which, as President Biden outlined during a meeting week ago , would effectively end the war.

At least two potentially destabilizing challenges now loom over Netanyahu’s government, analysts say.

The first is the prospect of an agreement with Hamas. Israeli and American officials say they are waiting for a formal response from Hamas to the truce proposal. A positive response could force Netanyahu to stop mucking about and choose between an agreement and the survival of his government.

The other challenge is the deeply polarizing issue of blanket exemptions from military service granted to ultra-Orthodox men enrolled in religious seminaries.

Ultra-Orthodox exemptions have long been a divisive issue in Israeli society, but tolerance for the decades-old policy has worn thin in a country where most 18-year-olds are conscripted for years of compulsory military service, and still more during this war. The same group of reserve soldiers finds itself repeatedly called up for long tours of duty in Gaza as the campaign nears its ninth month, with no clear plan, experts say, for where it will be headed.

On Monday evening or early Tuesday morning, the Israeli parliament was expected to vote on a recruitment bill that would essentially keep the ultra-Orthodox exemption system intact. Although pushed by Netanyahu to mollify his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, some members of his conservative Likud party – including Gallant, the defense minister – also oppose this, particularly during a war in which the country needs more soldiers. .

On the issue of recruitment, Netanyahu is in difficulty, Plesner said. “There is an inherent conflict between his political base and his most precious alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties,” he added.

If it passes first reading, the bill will enter committee before the second and third final votes. But even if the proposal doesn’t pass, said Plesner – himself a former lawmaker from a now-defunct centrist party – it won’t necessarily herald the dissolution of Parliament or the collapse of the government.

Netanyahu’s critics accuse him of prolonging the war to avoid elections and a public accounting for government and military failures that led to the Oct. 7 attack.

Taking inspiration from Netanyahu’s stated war goal of an “absolute victory” over Hamas, which many experts say is a vague and unattainable concept, Gantz said in his resignation speech on Sunday that a “real victory” would be one that combined military success and diplomatic initiative.

“Real victory,” he said, means “changing national priorities, expanding the circle of service and those who serve, and ensuring that Israel is able to meet the challenges it faces.”

“Unfortunately Netanyahu is preventing us from achieving a real victory,” he added.

Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, announced his resignation in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Sunday.Credit…Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

Netanyahu responded in a social media post addressing Gantz, saying: “Israel is in an existential war on multiple fronts. Benny, this is not the time to abandon the campaign: this is the time to join forces.”

Now, analysts say, Netanyahu is likely to focus primarily on keeping his narrow coalition together for the short term.

The summer session of Parliament ends at the end of July, and the legislature will reconvene only after the Jewish holidays in late October or November.

“Netanyahu has only one thing in mind,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Maintain your power as prime minister.”

“His main goal is to drag this coalition until the autumn,” he said, so that the next Israeli elections can take place only after the presidential elections in the United States.

Netanyahu, he said, was probably hoping that Donald Trump, the candidate he sees as most sympathetic to his causes, might be elected.

That would mean that if he makes it through the next six weeks, Netanyahu could live to fight another day.

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