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Friday, May 17, 2024

The Israeli Defense Establishment Revolts Against Netanyahu - The Atlantic

The Israeli Defense Establishment Revolts Against Netanyahu

"To appease his far-right flank, the prime minister has refused to commit to Palestinian governance of Gaza. Israel’s security figures are calling his bluff.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to the public alongside an Israeli flag.
Maya Alleruzzo / AP

Produced by ElevenLabs and News Over Audio (NOA) using AI narration.

On Tuesday, Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, did something extraordinary: He criticized the Israeli government. In recent days, Israeli troops have battled Hamas in parts of northern Gaza that had previously been cleared of enemy combatants. A reporter asked Hagari if the terrorist group had been able to reassert itself because the Israeli government had not set up any non-Hamas Palestinian administration for those areas.

The spokesman could have dodged the question. He did not. “There is no doubt that a governmental alternative to Hamas will create pressure on Hamas,” he replied, “but that is a question for the political echelon.”

Hagari’s polite but pointed critique of Israel’s leadership was a pebble. The avalanche came the next day. In a televised address yesterday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant—a former general and current member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party—publicly rebuked the government for failing to establish a postwar plan for Gaza. He then demanded that Netanyahu personally commit to Palestinian governance for the enclave, as opposed to Israeli settlement or occupation.

“Since October, I have been raising this issue consistently in the cabinet, and have received no response,” Gallant said. “The end of the military campaign must come together with political action. The ‘day after Hamas’ will only be achieved with Palestinian entities taking control of Gaza, accompanied by international actors, establishing a governing alternative to Hamas’s rule.”

Without such a political strategy, Gallant argued, no military strategy can succeed, and Israel will be left occupying Gaza and fighting a never-ending counterinsurgency against Hamas that saps the country’s military, economic, and diplomatic resources. “Indecision is, in essence, a decision,” he said. “This leads to a dangerous course, which promotes the idea of Israeli military and civilian governance in Gaza. This is a negative and dangerous option for the state of Israel.”

The defense minister closed with an ultimatum: “I call on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be raised immediately.” With these words, the Israeli defense establishment effectively launched a revolt against the Netanyahu government—and the dreams of its far-right flank to flood Gaza with Israeli settlers.

Gallant is far from the only person to press Netanyahu on this matter. For months, President Joe Biden and his administration have called for Israel to work with the Palestinian Authority—the Hamas rival that governs the West Bank—to establish a new administration in Gaza. Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, two former IDF chiefs turned opposition politicians, joined Netanyahu’s government after October 7 on the condition that a committee be created to formulate a Gaza exit strategy. But despite all of this external and internal pressure, no such plan has materialized—for a very straightforward reason: Netanyahu cannot publicly commit to a postwar plan for Gaza that includes Palestinians, because the day-after plan of his far-right partners is to get rid of those Palestinians.

Yesterday, standing at a lectern emblazoned with the words settlement in Gaza will bring security, the far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told a rally of thousands that the only way to defeat Hamas is to “return home” to Gaza and encourage “voluntary emigration” of its Palestinian population—a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. “Tell them,” Ben-Gvir declared, “‘Go to your homes, go to your countries. This is ours now and forever.’” Shlomo Karhi, a hard-right member of Netanyahu’s faction, offered similar sentiments. “In order to preserve the security achievements for which so many of our troops gave up their lives,” he said, “we must settle Gaza, with security forces and with settlers.”

Read: The right-wing Israeli plan to resettle Gaza

Polls show that most Israelis do not want to resettle the Gaza Strip. But Netanyahu and his coalition are uniquely beholden to the radical minority that does. Back in January, 15 of the coalition’s 64 members of Parliament attended a Jerusalem conference in support of Gaza resettlement. The parties that make up Netanyahu’s government received just 48.4 percent of the vote in Israel’s most recent election in November 2022. Without the far right, not only would the Israeli leader’s coalition collapse, but he would lack sufficient allies to form one in the future after another election. Alienating the extremists wouldn’t just finish Netanyahu’s government; it could end his political career.

This has placed the prime minister in a political vise. If he commits to postwar Palestinian rule in Gaza and begins acting seriously to establish it, he loses the far right. But if he commits to resettling Gaza, he loses the Israeli majority and the international community. And so, as he has often done in the past, Netanyahu has chosen not to choose, kicking the moment of decision down the road. But as Gallant said yesterday, indecision is also a decision—and it has consequences.

This month, Israel’s soldiers have been fighting pitched battles with Hamas in places such as Zeitun and Jabaliya that had previously been cleared by the IDF. Without any plan to govern these areas, Israel’s army has achieved many tactical victories in Gaza but suffered a strategic defeat, as Hamas has returned to fill the vacuum the IDF left behind. Faced with rising Israeli casualties in Gaza, far-right resettlement rallies in Israel, sharp criticism of Israel’s open-ended campaign abroad, and Netanyahu’s refusal to act, Gallant clearly felt compelled to speak out. In doing so, he made public the arguments he had previously been making in private.

Contrary to misquotes and mistranslations attributed to the Israeli defense minister in some international media outlets, Gallant has not called for genocide in Gaza, but rather for the territory to be handed back to Gazans. He has also consistently worked to align the Israeli campaign with the preferences of the Biden administration rather than the Israeli far right. In January, he called for Gaza to be governed by Palestinians in conjunction with the United States and moderate Arab states, without any Jewish settlements. In March, Gallant reportedly told the Israeli security cabinet that Gazans affiliated with the Palestinian Authority were the least bad option to administer the enclave.

Read: What did top Israeli war officials really say about Gaza?

Gallant believes that he is working both to protect Israel’s long-term security by saving it from a ruinous quagmire, and to coordinate its policy with its strongest ally, the United States. It is no coincidence that the defense minister’s dramatic address yesterday came shortly after U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told the White House press pool that “if Israel’s military efforts are not accompanied by a political plan for the future of Gaza and the Palestinian people, the terrorists will keep coming back … So we [are] talking to Israel about how to connect their military operations to a clear strategic endgame … to ensure the lasting defeat of Hamas and a better alternative future for Gaza and for the Palestinian people.”

Gallant is only one man, and he serves at Netanyahu’s discretion. He alone cannot alter national policy—but he has galvanized such change before. The last time the defense minister delivered a broadside against Netanyahu’s governance, it was in March 2023 to oppose a far-right effort to hobble Israel’s judicial system. At the time, Gallant warned that internal Israeli division over the legislation “poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.” That speech led to Gallant’s firing, which was reversed after hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest.

Today, once again, Gallant has been pushed to the point of public dissent by his perception that Netanyahu is privileging his own coalition and political interest over the national interest. In his address to the Israeli public, Gallant declared that “we must make tough decisions for the future of our country, favoring national priorities above all other possible considerations, even with the possibility of personal or political costs.”

The right’s response to this call has not been kind. Netanyahu issued a brief video rejecting Gallant’s arguments without naming him. Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister, demanded that Gallant be fired, while other hard-line lawmakers assailed him in personal terms. Getting rid of Gallant, however, will not be easy. According to recent polling, he is the most popular politician in Israel, far outpacing Netanyahu and his far-right partners. The defense minister’s speech was also quickly praised by Benny Gantz, the opposition leader in Israel’s war cabinet, who is leading Netanyahu in the polls and could leave the government if the prime minister acts rashly. And Netanyahu will have to contend with the United States—Sullivan is set to visit Israel this weekend, where he will undoubtedly press Gallant’s case. (By last night, a Biden official was already telling reporters that “we share the defense minister’s concern.”)

Back in 2023, Gallant’s speech against the judicial overhaul ultimately doomed the effort after months of political upheaval. The success or failure of his latest intervention may determine not just the endgame for this conflict, but the trajectory of Israel in the decades to come.

Yair Rosenberg is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Deep Shtetl, about the intersection of politics, culture, and religion."

The Israeli Defense Establishment Revolts Against Netanyahu - The Atlantic

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