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  1. The Staggers
18 June 2024

The dissolution of Netanyahu’s war cabinet shows his dependence on the far right

His delicate hold on power is finally starting to slip.

By David Swift

The dissolution of Benjamin Netanyahu’s officially sanctioned War Cabinet on Monday (17 June) has felt inevitable since the resignation of his political rival Benny Gantz earlier this month. This does not mean that the long-anticipated collapse of Netanyahu’s government has finally arrived, or at least not just yet. But it does demonstrate the extent of distrust and cynicism at the height of Israeli politics – and the delicate nature of Netanyahu’s faltering grip on power. 

Despite the absence of Gantz and fellow National Unity MP Gadi Eisenkot, the emergency unity government, formed after Hamas’s 7 October attack, is still in place. It is believed that Bibi will replace the War Cabinet with an informal advisory forum to consist of Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer – all from the Likud – and Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, which represents the Mizrahim ultra-Orthodox, who is seen as a relative moderate.

By itself, Gantz’s absence has not necessarily meant that Netanyahu has become more influenced by the far-right. He was already dependent on their support to stay in power, but had so far been able to reject their more extreme policies in terms of population displacement and resettlement. Ultimately, therefore, this latest round of political manoeuvring has an interpersonal cause: Netanyahu dissolved the War Cabinet because he could no longer keep denying membership of it to Itamar Ben-Gvir, his security minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Strength Party, who had been pushing for inclusion for months.

Ben-Gvir has called for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza and the repopulation of the area with Jewish settlers. He avowedly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and views it as the inevitable destiny of the Jewish people to settle all the land of Biblical Israel. While Netanyahu is on the right of Israeli politics, he recognises that this is an extreme view. He is particularly well-placed to weigh the risks of Ben-Gvir being given direct influence over military operations, or from him gaining access to high-level classified information and top-secret documents.

The War Cabinet was only originally set up as part of the coalition agreement with National Unity last October to ensure that Gantz and Eisenkot, both of whom are former generals in the IDF, would have direct influence over the war effort. But it was equally a way of keeping other government ministers – specifically Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party – at a safe distance.

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The disbanding of the War Cabinet is a continuation of this policy. And it is only a short-term measure, doing more to hasten than postpone the collapse of Netanyahu’s government. That he has taken this step, which makes his position yet more precarious, shows the price the prime minister is willing to pay to keep Ben-Gvir out of the War Cabinet. But this is hardly a vindication of Netanyahu’s political management or morals. Ben-Gvir’s presence so close to power anyway – Minister of National Security no less – is a powerful indictment of the Israeli political system and of the right-ward drift of recent years. There was outrage across the political spectrum when the far-right were included in government for the first time in November 2022; now they are near the very apex of Israeli political power.

Across Israel meanwhile, the public are waiting for Ben-Gvir’s reaction. Netanyahu managed to somewhat disguise his snub by disbanding the War Cabinet rather than continuing to deny Ben-Gvir entry. Furthermore, the disbanding had been anticipated for several weeks given the unresolvable internal tensions over the direction of the war and the need for elections (which precipitated Gantz’s exit). These two factors mean it is unlikely that this move by itself will be enough to provoke the Jewish Strength party or Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party to leave the coalition. But it starkly illustrates the depths of the predicament Netanyahu is in, whereby giving more power and influence to the far-right would jeopardise national security, but not doing so will jeopardise his hold on power.

Netanyahu’s decision suggests that he is still, just about, willing to prioritise the former over the latter, or that he has accepted that an election is inevitable and is now daring Ben-Gvir to do his worst by abandoning the coalition and forcing a fresh poll. Either way, with no end in sight to the conflict in Gaza, and a clash with Hezbollah appearing increasingly inevitable, the turbulence in Israeli politics is only set to continue.

The outbreak of any war in the North would initially boost the position of ex-military commanders such as Gantz, Eisenkot and Gallant, and further marginalise extremists such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. But if a poll is held before then, Likud’s likely woes could mean that the religious Zionist bloc will emerge stronger than they are now. Depending on the result, they will be either remain a major thorn in the side of a non-Netanyahu PM – or, if Bibi somehow manages to hang on, will have even greater leverage over him than they already do now.

[See also: Meloni’s support for Ukraine is good political strategy]

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