Benny Gantz finally departed Israel’s emergency government on Sunday after issuing an ultimatum to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu weeks ago pledging to leave if six policy issues were not resolved or clarified. This is the second time that Gantz has joined with Netanyahu in the face of an emergency—the first coming in the early days of COVID—and the second time that the uneasy partnership has fallen apart following Gantz’s frustrations at being marginalized. Unlike the previous time, when the two sides could not agree on a budget, automatically dissolving the Knesset and forcing a new election, Gantz’s move does not bring the government down. Gantz was not the margin keeping Netanyahu in place, as he joined the existing 64-seat coalition after October 7, so on the face of it, Gantz’s decision to head back to the opposition changes nothing.

The Knesset in Jerusalem

This does not, however, mean that everything will remain the same. Even if Gantz had less influence with every passing day, his presence in the government acted as a stopper, preventing movement on a range of issues in an indirect way. In the immediate term, Israeli policy is not going to look different than it did over the past few months and the political situation will remain static. But Gantz’s departure will set a number of things in motion, and will ultimately force Netanyahu into some choices that he had been able to avoid.

The quickest and most predictable impact of Gantz’s exit is emboldening Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. Netanyahu has made a career of fending off both partners and antagonists on his right by pointing to the presence of more moderate forces in whose face he is allegedly powerless. He spent years doing this with U.S. presidents, blaming his inability to adopt even more radical policies in the West Bank on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in particular (and also using the corollary on them, blaming his inability to adopt policies more in line with their requests on his domestic politics and the need to maintain his coalitions). Gantz joining the government on October 11 allowed Netanyahu to create the new innovation of a war cabinet. From that point forward, he could use Gantz’s role as one of three voting members and the war cabinet’s confidential nature to keep Smotrich and Ben Gvir at bay and cut them—and the security cabinet, where they are both members—out of making decisions or even having complete information.

True to form, Ben Gvir demanded inclusion in the war cabinet as soon as Gantz resigned from it, which means that Netanyahu is likely to disband it rather than include him. But it also makes it harder going forward to blunt Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s influence on the war itself, and removes Netanyahu’s built-in excuse for why he cannot take an even harder line than he has. It is hard to imagine, for instance, the Israeli government approving the ceasefire and hostage deal framework that it approved two weeks ago without the mechanism of the war cabinet, which was the only body that weighed in on the deal that was sent to Hamas and where Netanyahu found himself outnumbered by Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot, Yoav Gallant, and even Aryeh Deri. An already far right-wing government is about to look and sound even more so.

A rally in Haifa calling for elections on June 8, 2024

Netanyahu is not the only one who is going to feel more exposed without Gantz around. Gallant comes from Netanyahu’s Likud, but lately he has been more in league with Gantz than with his own party head on Gaza issues, from the benefits of a ceasefire deal to putting a realistic day-after plan in place. Gallant just lost two critical war cabinet allies in Gantz and Eisenkot, which not only means more solo feuding with Netanyahu but also being out on a limb alone against his Defense Ministry colleague Smotrich. When Gallant has pushed back against Smotrich’s all-out efforts to collapse the Palestinian Authority and set the West Bank aflame—which serves Smotrich’s ultimate vision of annexation and some measure of expulsion—he has had two former IDF chiefs of staff in his corner. He is now on his own, and if the pre-October 7 past is any indication, he won’t get much backing from Netanyahu.

If there is an immediate political effect to the restoration of the original pre-Gantz 64-seat coalition, it will be to provide a definitive answer to the mystery surrounding the question of Likud rebels. Much like the late O.J. Simpson’s eternal and ill-fated quest to find his wife’s real killers, the quest to find the five or more renegade Likudniks uneasy with the direction of this government and willing to force new elections for the country’s sake has been a running macabre joke. If Gallant is truly the leader of a group of so far nameless and faceless MKs willing to vote with the Knesset opposition for new elections, it will become clear sooner rather than later. To the extent that Gallant is out of sync with Netanyahu, he is now publicly completely isolated within the coalition, leaving him little remaining reason to hide his true colors, if that is indeed what he has been doing. Any potential dissenters could not step out against Netanyahu while members of the opposition continued to sit alongside him. Now that Gantz and Eisenkot are gone, it will hasten whatever reckoning exists—if there is indeed one—within the right.

A Likud party campaign banner

The return of the fully right-wing coalition and the expected imminent dissolution of the war cabinet also means that Netanyahu faces a choice. I expect that he will do anything within his power to keep his coalition intact, since it means remaining as prime minister until at least the spring when he must pass another budget in order to buy himself another year. Doing so will require letting Smotrich run amok in the West Bank, letting Ben Gvir run amok in Israeli streets, and letting the Haredim continue to evade military or national service. It will also mean that the war in Gaza never really ends and adds a new component of direct IDF control of daily life in parts of Gaza, the hostages remain in captivity absent more extraordinary but rare successful rescue operations, and Israel continues to bleed a slow diplomatic death of trade embargoes, U.N. blacklists, and international tribunal charges of genocide and arrest warrants. Netanyahu has been willing to pay parts of this price so far, and the evidence suggests he is willing to continue doing so.

The other choice is to pause the war, engage with the Palestinian Authority on both Gaza and the West Bank, and move toward the normalization deal with Saudi Arabia that President Joe Biden is trying to pull off. If Netanyahu heads in this direction, it will not be because it is his preference, but because he believes that his coalition is no longer sustainable—either because it will be brought down by the Haredi draft issue, or because Smotrich and Ben Gvir are truly unable to be corralled—and that his only option for political survival is to shake things up without it seeming as if he is forced into it. If Smotrich and Ben Gvir desert him, Gantz and Yair Lapid are likely to extend his political life only for the purpose of lending him their temporary support in order to see a hostage deal and Saudi normalization through. Netanyahu will then try to transform his diplomatic wins into a political win and attempt to pull off the unlikeliest of recoveries at the ballot box. While this scenario is more far-fetched, Gantz’s move unlocks it as a possibility.

Gantz may have started a chain reaction that leads to the government’s dissolution, or he may have done nothing but return to being a largely powerless opposition MK. Only time will tell whether his speech on Sunday will alter Israel’s post-October 7 trajectory, or distill it down to an even more concentrated state.

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