The Gantz Ultimatum

The Israeli former general throws down the gauntlet to the man Israel’s elite and American policymakers see as the country’s true foe—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz arrives at the US State Department ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 5, 2024, in Washington DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz arrives at the US State Department ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 5, 2024, in Washington DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images)

On Saturday night, the leader of Israel’s National Unity party ushered in a new era of national disunity. Benny Gantz, who joined the Israeli government shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an ultimatum: either he formulates a war strategy that will remake the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East, or else Gantz will resign. This performance, hardly calculated to build a national consensus, laid the predicate for a speedy defection from the government and the beginning of a campaign to topple Netanyahu. While Gantz’s resignation, when it comes, will not bring an immediate end to this government, it will place the coalition under strain, and may well make early elections more likely.

After having attempted to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu in five rounds of elections between 2019 and 2022, Gantz heeded calls from the Israeli public to put aside political feuds. He joined the government, sparking the creation of a special war cabinet, which, in addition to him, consists of Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and three observers. While decisions of the war cabinet are not constitutionally binding, they carry moral authority. Gantz’s presence reassures the Israeli public—and foreign friends—that policy serves the national interest. From now on, however, the government’s decisions will be open to the accusation that they serve the prime minister’s narrow interests.

In fact, Gantz was already making the case on Saturday night. “A small minority took over the bridge of the Israeli ship, and is sailing it toward a wall of rocks,” Gantz asserted, as if he himself had not been present on the bridge throughout the war.

If Netanyahu’s government were to fall, Gantz’s National Unity party would likely be a big winner at the ballot box. It currently holds 12 seats in the Knesset, but polls indicate that, if the election were held today, it would gain 18 more, for a total of 30. Netanyahu’s Likud might win around 20, down from 32. When asked who they prefer as prime minister, Gantz leads Netanyahu, albeit by a slimmer margin.

Gantz rose in popularity since the last election for three main reasons. First, he is an attractive, career military man. A former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, his national security expertise answers the needs of the moment. As the name of his party demonstrates, he was attuned to the longing of voters for national unity—a longing that existed even before Oct. 7 and has only exploded since then. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Gantz was not himself in power on Oct. 7, even if he is as responsible as anyone for the faulty strategic “konseptzia” that he implemented as defense minister and as head of the IDF.

But to understand the specific timing of Gantz’s decision to break with Netanyahu, we must look not to internal Israeli politics, but to American foreign policy. More specifically, we must look to the intention of President Joe Biden to shut down Israel’s war in Gaza as soon as possible. Biden’s recent moves—such as “pausing” the delivery of arms, publicly demanding the IDF refrain from conquering Rafah, and pressuring Jerusalem to make concessions to Hamas in the negotiations for a cease-fire—bespeak a clear desire to bring the war to a speedy end, even if doing so means leaving the Israelis with a sense of failure. The Biden team is hardly keeping its desire secret. “If we can get a cease-fire, we can get something more enduring and then maybe end the conflict,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson said at the end of April.

Joe Biden expects that Hamas will remain a player in the post-conflict Gaza Strip. Again, the president and his aides are expressing their intentions openly. “[W]e have to be honest about the fact that Hamas will remain in Gaza in some form after the war is over,” a senior administration official recently confessed to Jacob Magid, a reporter for the Times of Israel.

Gantz also knows that if Biden gets his way, there will be no war against Hezbollah. The administration has repeatedly warned the Israelis against escalation, and it has been quietly planning a diplomatic initiative to shut down the conflict for good the moment a cease-fire in Gaza is announced. The plan calls, among other things, for streaming billions of international investment dollars into southern Lebanon—into Hezbollah’s coffers. Enriching a proxy of Iran to deter it failed with Hamas. It certainly will not work with Hezbollah, nor will it assure Israelis displaced from their homes in the north that their government is protecting them.

These three demands—stop the war now; accept Hamas as a player in Gaza; and refrain from escalating against Hezbollah in order to deter it—set the Biden administration at odds not just with the Israeli government, but with the Israeli people, who overwhelmingly expect their government to expunge Hamas from the face of the earth and to weaken Hezbollah severely, so that the many tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from their homes in the north and in the Gaza periphery can return without fear of being attacked. While Gantz has worked with Netanyahu to defy the Americans with respect to Rafah, he knows that the growing pressure from Washington all but guarantees that the war will end in a way that will leave Israelis feeling that they did not win, their enemies are emboldened, and their lives are in danger. If Gantz remains in the government, he will bear some of the responsibility for the perceived failure. The stigma of Oct. 7 will adhere to him, too.

By quitting now, Gantz pockets some of the credit for the successful aspects of the war, and for beginning to stand up to the Americans on Rafah, yet leaves Netanyahu holding the bill for the messy ending still to come. At the same time, he can benefit from the Biden team’s palpable hostility toward Netanyahu, not to mention toward the religious nationalists, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, whom the administration has cast as the big spoilers of Israeli-American unity.

Shortly after the war started, the Biden team began construction on a Potemkin policy centered on “the day after” in Gaza. Instead of helping Netanyahu to maintain national unity to vanquish Hamas, the administration insisted that he must, before even defeating Hamas, accept a two-state solution based on the rule of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority in Gaza. The policy is fanciful, because the Palestinian Authority does not have the wherewithal to govern Gaza, and because the Israeli public reviles the idea. If Netanyahu were to follow the script the Americans are writing for him, he will earn the enmity of most of the Israeli electorate, which considers the plan dangerous to its existence. In addition, he will scuttle his own government, because Smotrich and Ben-Gvir threatened to resign over the issue.

Creating these tensions within Netanyahu’s coalition, however, was precisely the goal of the policy. As time has gone on, the administration has added ever more ornate elements to the fantasy future it is depicting. For example, in an interview last January with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that Israel was missing out on an “alliance-in-waiting” between it and the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia. If Netanyahu would simply agree to the Saudi condition for normalization of relations, namely, accepting “a pathway to a Palestinian state,” then a brand new Middle East awaits. Without gaining the support of Saudi Arabia, Blinken explained, the Israelis would attain neither “genuine security” nor the necessary international support for a “reformed Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people.” However, if Netanyahu and his coalition partners were to embrace the two-state solution, then, Blinken said, “all of a sudden, you have a region that’s come together in ways that answer the most profound questions that Israel has tried to answer for years, and what has heretofore been its single biggest concern in terms of security, Iran, is suddenly isolated, along with its proxies.”

Is the opposition of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir really what is preventing the United States from bringing into existence a forceful anti-Iran regional coalition? Of course not. In truth, the Biden administration has no intention of standing up to Tehran. Conciliation of Iran is the basis of its entire Middle East strategy. But the anti-Netanyahu wing of the Israeli press—by far its biggest wing—has never noticed this dimension of Biden’s policy. Instead, it has taken Blinken’s vision of a new Middle East at face value, as has, among many others, Thomas Friedman himself. Columnist after columnist in Israel parrot Friedman and Blinken, insisting that a grand anti-Iran coalition, one that includes Saudi Arabia and is backed by Joe Biden, stands within Israel’s grasp, if only Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will allow Netanyahu to recite the magic formula, “We accept a two-state solution and the return of a revitalized Palestinian Authority to Gaza.”

When delivering his ultimatum on Saturday night, Gantz tacitly endorsed this fiction.

“Personal and political considerations have begun to invade the holy of holies of Israel’s security,” he said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu, the choice is in your hands. If you prioritize the national above the personal, you will find us to be partners to the battle, but,” he said, in a clear reference to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, “if you choose the path of zealots and lead the entire country to an abyss—we will be forced to quit the government.”

The cabinet, Gantz insisted, must quickly, within three weeks, approve a plan for the remainder of the war that will achieve six objectives: the freeing of the hostages; the toppling of Hamas and the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip; the establishment of an American-European-Arab-Palestinian administration to manage civil affairs in the Gaza Strip; the return to their homes by Sept. 1 of the displaced residents of northern Israel; the normalization with Saudi Arabia as part of a comprehensive move that will create an alliance with the free world and the Arab world against Iran; and, finally, the development of a plan to broaden the draft to include all Israelis—which means drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews, who currently are exempted from military service.

The drafting of the ultra-Orthodox, one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics, by itself could easily bring down the government—and it may well do so. But it is the only issue on Gantz’s list that does not somehow embroil the government with the Americans.

For example, how does Gantz propose to return displaced Israelis to their homes by Sept. 1? The achievement of that aim requires vanquishing Hezbollah, yet Gantz knows that Biden has repeatedly restrained Israel in the north and insists that a diplomatic solution to the conflict awaits Israel once it reaches “the day after” in Gaza. Does he propose starting a major war with Iran’s favorite proxy in the teeth of Washington’s opposition? And with respect to the international administration that will manage civil affairs in Gaza, does he have any reason to believe that the Americans, Europeans, or Arabs are ready to take on such a role? The Biden administration has, in recent weeks, argued in favor of Hamas maintaining a rump presence in Gaza. When Hamas begins to attack the foreign administrators, what then? Does Gantz imagine that Oman and the UAE will bomb Hamas and its Gazan human shields—or that the EU or the United States will send in special forces operators to stop Hamas and Islamic Jihad from launching rockets?

If the Biden administration is trying to prevent the Israelis from defeating Hamas soundly, if they are restraining the Israelis against Hezbollah, if they are turning a blind eye to the rise of Iranian proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, if they are refusing to enforce sanctions against Iranian oil sales to China—if they are making all of these concessions and more to Tehran, what makes Gantz think they are eager to bring Israel into a grand alliance with the Europeans and the Arabs against Iran?

Gantz doesn’t really think that, of course. But he can abandon his post in the government and launch a campaign against Netanyahu only if a significant percentage of the Israeli public accepts the fiction. If it concludes, for example, that the Biden administration is appeasing Iran at Israel’s expense, or that Washington refuses to support an Israeli victory for any reason other than its hostility to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, then Gantz will lose some of the support that he gained by putting aside political differences and taking up a position of responsibility in the war.

In this context, the news, which broke on Monday morning, that the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and Netanyahu on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arrived at an inopportune moment for Gantz. The warrants come on the heels of Blinken’s statement, made a little over a week earlier, that “it was reasonable to assess that ... Israel acted in ways that are not consistent with international humanitarian law.” Most Israelis find such assessments ludicrous. If the public concludes that Gantz is weakening the Israeli government to join forces with an American administration that does not have Israel’s best interests at heart, his popularity in the polls will drop as fast as it rose.

But the key players in this charade—Gantz, Antony Blinken, Thomas Friedman, and a host of Israeli commentators—understand the game. They will work to facilitate a departure by Gantz that appears patriotic rather than self-interested. They have their story, and they are sticking to it. The problem, they insist, boils down to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and the hold they have over Netanyahu. Were it not for those religious zealots, and Israel’s politically, if not also personally, corrupt prime minister, desperate to maintain his personal hold on power, then the United States and Israel would surely be working together hand-in-glove to lay Iran low.

While this story may not have any connection to actual American policy anywhere in the Middle East, it does have great appeal to every Israeli who hates Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners and finds understandable comfort in the fiction of a benevolent, powerful, and well-intentioned America that wants nothing more than to take Israel’s side against a tightening ring of terror armies backed by a nuclear-capable Iran. And that might be just enough support to deliver the premiership to Gantz in a few months’ time.

Read in Tablet.