Israel’s Netanyahu dissolved the war cabinet, does it matter?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dissolved his war cabinet, after being pressured to add members.

Six members of the former war cabinet
Top row from left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former general Benny Gantz, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant; Second row from left: Aryeh Deri, Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer [AFP]

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dissolved the country’s war cabinet, following the withdrawal of his principal rival, Benny Gantz.

The six-member war cabinet will now be replaced by a “kitchen cabinet”, which Netanyahu will be able to consult for advice on the war on Gaza.

Netanyahu had been under pressure from far-right ministers within his coalition cabinet who wanted to join the war cabinet, which could have triggered a further lurch to the extreme right of Israeli politics.

What was the Israeli war cabinet?

The war cabinet was formed on October 11 after Israel declared war on Gaza in response to a Hamas-led attack on October 7.

The cabinet was set up as a smaller body within the security cabinet, which was part of the wider coalition cabinet.

It comprised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his principal rival, former general Benny Gantz, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, and three observers: government ministers Aryeh Deri and Gadi Eisenkot, and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer.

The war cabinet was intended to make quick decisions about the conduct of the war, which would then be sent for approval by the wider cabinet.

Did the war cabinet run smoothly?

Not always.

Disagreements and feuds were said to be rife within the smaller body.

In January, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported opposition leader Yair Lapid had told a party meeting that Gallant and Netanyahu “were no longer speaking to one another” and war cabinet meetings had become “a shameful arena for settling scores, fighting and discussions that lead nowhere”.

Why was it scrapped?

On June 9, Gantz and observer Eisenkot, both of the National Unity Party, quit the war cabinet over the lack of a plan for Gaza beyond the current assault.

Speaking on Sunday evening, Netanyahu reportedly told the security cabinet: “There is no more war cabinet”, one member present told the Israeli press.

“It was part of the coalition agreement with Gantz, at his demand. The moment Gantz left, there is no such forum anymore,” Netanyahu is said to have continued.

Gantz’s departure increased the pressure from National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who were both lobbying to join the inner war cabinet.

In a letter to Netanyahu dated Thursday, Ben-Gvir wrote that the Israeli war had been “conducted in secret”, over the past eight months, through “limited forums that change their names and definitions in a loop, all for the purpose of sole control over decisions and avoiding discussion of other positions that would challenge the old conception”.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich within the Knesset
Ben-Gvir, left, and Smotrich look on during the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, on November 15, 2022 [Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP]

Why are Ben-Gvir and Smotrich so problematic?

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich represent an ultra-Orthodox, hard-right constituency within Israel’s increasingly rightwards tilting politics. They are also closely associated with the settler movement, which seeks to build on what is Palestinian land under international law.

Both previously threatened to resign if Israel did not launch its current attack upon the city of Rafah in Gaza, at the time home to 1.5 million displaced people.

Both also threatened to quit if Netanyahu proceeded with the United States-backed ceasefire deal before they deemed Hamas “destroyed”.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich also support the establishment of illegal settlements in Gaza, following the “voluntary migration” of the Palestinians living there – a position in stark contrast to Israel’s official war policy.

Lastly is their international standing, which is quite problematic.

None of Israel’s allies, including the US, are likely to engage with either politician, fundamentally undermining any potential role within the war cabinet.

Can’t Netanyahu just ignore them?

Not really.

Given that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s parties hold a combined 14 seats within the Knesset – compared to, say, Gantz’s National Unity’s 12 – their withdrawal would lead to the coalition cabinet’s collapse and the end of Netanyahu’s term in office.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision will disappoint hardliners such as Bezalel Smotrich [AFP]

What now?

The war cabinet’s role in determining the administration of the conflict largely ended with Gantz’s withdrawal, so its formal dissolution is unlikely to make a big difference.

According to Netanyahu, the war cabinet will be replaced by a reduced kitchen cabinet, in which sensitive discussions and consultations can be conducted.

According to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the new body will include Gallant, Dermer, and National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi.

This will also block Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s attempts to join the body.

Source: Al Jazeera