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Israeli army battle tanks move near the border with the Gaza Strip at a location in southern Israel. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM:  Benny Gantz, an Israeli opposition leader in the country’s three-man war cabinet, said on Saturday that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t offer a new plan to bring back hostages and end Hamas rule in Gaza by June 8, he’ll leave the government.

While such a move wouldn’t collapse the ruling coalition — it has 64 seats out of a 120-seat parliament — it would greatly increase already mounting pressure on Netanyahu seven months after the Hamas attack devastated Israel and led it to wage an unforgiving war in Gaza.

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“The war cabinet must formulate and approve by June 8 an action plan that will lead to the realisation of six strategic goals of national importance.. (or) we will be forced to resign from the government,” Gantz said, referring to his party, in a televised address directed at Netanyahu.

Gantz said the six goals included toppling Hamas, ensuring Israeli security control over the Palestinian territory and returning Israeli hostages.

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“Along with maintaining Israeli security control, establish an American, European, Arab and Palestinian administration that will manage civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip and lay the foundation for a future alternative that is not Hamas or (Mahmud) Abbas,” he said, referring to the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu instantly rejected the demands.

“The conditions set by Benny Gantz are washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of war and defeat for Israel, abandoning most of the hostages, leaving Hamas intact and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Israel’s military is trying to destroy Hamas fighting units in the southern city of Rafah — an operation that’s already forced half a million Palestinians to flee — and Netanyahu was indignant that in the midst of the fighting Gantz is threatening to break up the cabinet.

No secret

It’s no secret that Gantz and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have been barely on speaking terms with Netanyahu in recent weeks over his management of the war and the way he has alienated US President Joe Biden and his administration, which oppose the Rafah operation.

Last Wednesday, Gallant gave his own statement accusing Netanyahu of failing to create a so-called day-after plan for Gaza, saying Israel was headed to re-occupying the territory, which he considers unacceptable. Gantz offered his support for Gallant shortly thereafter.

“Personal and political considerations began to penetrate the Holy of Holies — Israel’s security,” Gantz said. Image Credit: Reuters

At his press event on Saturday, Gantz went much further, laying out a long list of demands. He made reference to the war cabinet’s initial successes, saying it has now fallen apart.

“For many months unity was indeed real and meaningful,” he said. “But lately something has gone sour. Essential decisions were not made. Acts of leadership required to ensure victory were not taken. A small minority has taken over the command bridge of the Israeli ship and is leading it into a concrete wall.”

He added, “Personal and political considerations began to penetrate the Holy of Holies — Israel’s security.”

The opposition’s complaints against Netanyahu are that he’s allowed his far-right coalition partners to dictate policy simply so that he can stay in power, ignoring entreaties by the US and Arab nations.

Netanyahu says, however, that only after Hamas is defeated and Gazans are no longer afraid of it can a plan for the future emerge.

Numerous demands

Gantz listed numerous demands, including defeating Hamas, demilitarizing Gaza and bringing in a coalition of Arabs, Americans and Palestinians to manage civilian affairs in the ravaged coastal strip. He said Israelis who’ve been evacuated from the north because of ongoing battles with Lebanon’s Hezbollah need to be returned to their homes by September. He said Netanyahu needs to promote relations with Saudi Arabia and come up with an elusive plan for conscripting religious men.

Otherwise, he said, “If you choose to follow the path of fanatics and lead the entire nation to the abyss, we will be forced to resign from the government.”

He said he’d “turn to the people and establish a government that will win the people’s trust.”

How exactly he can do that remains unclear. But if five members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party can be persuaded to abandon him and join the new opposition, that could collapse the government and create elections.

Gantz, who’s been consistently polling ahead of Netanyahu as a future prime minister, addressed the nation’s leader personally: “I have known you for many years as an Israeli leader and patriot: you know very well what needs to be done. The Netanyahu of a decade ago would have done the right thing. Are you able to do the right and patriotic thing today?”

Netanyahu, 74, is the country’s longest serving prime minister. After being indicted for bribery and fraud five years ago, centrist politicians increasingly declined to serve with him, and he turned to parties on the extreme right to build his most recent government in late 2022.

The war began when Hamas broke into Israel on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200, kidnapping another 250 to Gaza. Israel’s response, aimed at uprooting Hamas as a military and political entity, has destroyed whole neighborhoods and killed some 35,000 people, according to Hamas officials who don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.