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The Israeli war Cabinet is in raucous disarray. One of its three members, who is also the minister of defense, has openly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for lacking a clear strategy to defeat Hamas and restore order in Gaza. (In doing so, he has repeated a similar public broadside leveled by the army chief of staff.) The other member of the war Cabinet is threatening to resign if Netanyahu doesn’t change course in his war aims by June 8.

Some speculate that these divisions could bring down the government, triggering new elections. Though a majority of Israelis (as well as many pro-Israel U.S. officials) would welcome the ouster, it isn’t likely to happen. Still, the three-man war Cabinet was assembled after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, precisely in order to instill trust among the public. That trust is now crumbling, even as its edifice—along with the larger government-wide Cabinet that Netanyahu heads—stays standing.

This Cabinet’s likely political survival is a shame, as the main dispute between Netanyahu and his critics indicates that he misunderstands not only the scope of the current war in Gaza but the nature of war in general.

Netanyahu is facing much criticism, from all over the world, for his plan to mount a major offensive in Rafah, the southern city in Gaza. The town is where the remaining Hamas leaders are thought to be hiding in tunnels, but it is also where more than 1 million Palestinian civilians—many of them refugees from earlier offensives in the north—are crammed with inadequate food, shelter, or sanitation.

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Yet even the critics in Netanyahu’s Cabinet support his plan to attack Rafah. Benny Gantz, the war Cabinet member who is threatening to quit, told U.S. officials not long ago, “Ending the war without clearing out Rafah is like sending a firefighter to extinguish 80 percent of the fire.” The issue of contention concerns what happens after the war—who occupies, governs, and rebuilds Gaza?

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The other critical war Cabinet member, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, publicly opposes the idea of Israeli troops reoccupying Gaza, as they did from the 1967 war until their withdrawal in 2005. Gallant has even spoken with senior U.S. officials about a multinational occupation force, with Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, building up a new Palestinian Authority governing a demilitarized Gaza with no involvement from Hamas.

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Netanyahu has lambasted this notion and has said the Israeli army will need to control Gaza even after the war. Gallant and others fear this would fuel an insurgency, divide and weaken Israel, further alienate global opinion of the Jewish state, and ruin the chance of “normalized” relations with Saudi Arabia. Gantz says he’ll quit unless Netanyahu spells out a clear postwar strategy that doesn’t depend on occupying Gaza.

The dynamics here are complicated by the fact that both Gallant and Gantz are political opponents of Netanyahu. Gantz, a retired general and former defense minister, was the alternate prime minister in 2020–21, as part of a brief power-sharing arrangement while Netanyahu was under criminal investigation. Gallant, also a retired general, is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. One or both of them would likely run for prime minister in the event of new elections.

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Netanyahu won Israel’s last election in November 2022, returning to power after being briefly dethroned, by assembling a coalition consisting entirely of right-wing parties. (He had won previous elections by recruiting parties to Likud’s left.) The coalition’s margin is thin, holding just 64 of the 120 seats in Parliament. In other words, if just five of its members resigned, Netanyahu’s majority would vanish, new elections would have to take place, and he would almost certainly lose. The far-right members have threatened to resign if Netanyahu budges the slightest bit toward peace in Gaza or advocacy of a Palestinian state—which is one reason why he hasn’t done so. (This is also why Chuck Schumer, one of the most pro-Israel U.S. senators, urged Israel to hold new elections: He thought Netanyahu was too beholden to his right-wing partners.) The far-right members could be bluffing; they must know that if the coalition collapsed and new elections were held, they would never be invited to join a government ever again. But Netanyahu doesn’t seem inclined to call their bluff; on the main issues, he seems to agree with them.

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At the same time, neither Gallant nor Gantz has the influence to sway enough relatively moderate members of Likud to resign. Israel’s next elections are not scheduled until 2026. It is hard to see the mechanism for new elections to be held before then.

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Despite pressure from Gallant, Gantz, and President Joe Biden, Netanyahu has publicly derided the idea of even talking about “the day after” the war ends, saying Israel needs to focus on winning the war before thinking about the peace. But this attitude reveals a profound misunderstanding of war. As the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, war is “merely a political act … a continuation of political intercourse” carried out “by other means.” In other words, a country doesn’t first fight a war, then decide on its political aims; war is fought for political aims, and ideally—if there is ever an ideal in war—in a way that advances those political aims. By this measure, Israeli leaders need to think about how their people will be able to live and thrive next to Gaza—and next to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Arabs in states all around the region—after the war. And they need to think about this while the war is being fought.

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This is a difficult task, especially since Hamas started the war with its attack across Israel’s southern border, killing 1,200 people, most of them civilians, the largest number of Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust. Still, war, even this war, remains “a political act.” And leaders of other countries, including those forced into war by an aggressor’s invasion, have not lost sight of this fact.

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In his 1977 book Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar Defense, 1941–45, historian Michael Sherry uncovered documents showing that U.S. officials—military commanders and civilian leaders at all levels—discussed, debated, and put in motion ideas for preserving U.S. interests after the end of World War II, even while their war against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan was still raging. It was in the context of these discussions that Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau put forth a plan in 1944 to destroy Germany’s industries so the country could never remilitarize. The plan was knocked down by other officials, who argued that a new democratic Germany needed to be strengthened as a bulwark against what they saw as postwar Soviet expansion.

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I do not mean to draw comparisons between Nazis and Hamas, or a new Palestinian Authority and the Federal Republic of Germany, or World War II and the war in Gaza. I cite Sherry’s book only to emphasize that, even amid a total global war with existential consequences for the fate of freedom, American leaders spent a lot of time planning not only how to win the war but how to shape the world afterward. Both are political acts. Uttering slogans like “total victory,” as Netanyahu has done, means nothing in the absence of a political context. To fight a war without devising a desirable (or at least plausible) peace is to inflict violence and mayhem for their own sake.

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Why Netanyahu’s War Cabinet Is Existentially Divided

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21.05.2024
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The Israeli war Cabinet is in raucous disarray. One of its three members, who is also the minister of defense, has openly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for lacking a clear strategy to defeat Hamas and restore order in Gaza. (In doing so, he has repeated a similar public broadside leveled by the army chief of staff.) The other member of the war Cabinet is threatening to resign if Netanyahu doesn’t change course in his war aims by June 8.

Some speculate that these divisions could bring down the government, triggering new elections. Though a majority of Israelis (as well as many pro-Israel U.S. officials) would welcome the ouster, it isn’t likely to happen. Still, the three-man war Cabinet was assembled after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, precisely in order to instill trust among the public. That trust is now crumbling, even as its edifice—along with the larger government-wide Cabinet that Netanyahu heads—stays standing.

This Cabinet’s likely political survival is a shame, as the main dispute between Netanyahu and his critics indicates that he misunderstands not only the scope of the current war in Gaza but the nature of war in general.

Netanyahu is facing much criticism, from all over the world, for his plan to mount a major offensive in Rafah, the southern city in Gaza. The town is where the remaining Hamas leaders are thought to be hiding in tunnels, but it is also where more than 1 million Palestinian civilians—many of them refugees from earlier offensives in the north—are crammed with inadequate food, shelter, or sanitation.

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Yet even the critics in Netanyahu’s Cabinet support his plan to attack Rafah. Benny Gantz, the war Cabinet member who is threatening to quit, told U.S. officials not long ago, “Ending the war without clearing out Rafah is like sending a firefighter to extinguish 80 percent of the fire.” The issue of contention concerns what happens after the war—who occupies, governs, and rebuilds Gaza?

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