Israel’s military response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack is being determined by a newly formed wartime cabinet.
The wartime cabinet is made up of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Who are its members and more importantly – what are they thinking right now?
Today, On Point: The politics and dynamics influencing Israel’s top leaders and how that could shape the course of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Ruth Margalit, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and New Yorker. Author of the New Yorker article “Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s Minister of Chaos.”
Yosef Kuperwasser, a retired Brigadier General in the Israeli Defense Forces. Former head of the Research Division at the Israel Defense Forces’ Intelligence Corps.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On Oct. 11, 2023, just four days after the deadly Hamas attack on Israel, the Israeli government formed a special wartime cabinet. This cabinet is overseeing Israel’s military and political response in the Israel Hamas conflict. Here’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, through an English interpreter, announcing the cabinet’s creation.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (TRANSLATION): Citizens of Israel, this evening we formed a national emergency government. The people of Israel are united and today its leadership is also united. We have set aside any other consideration because the fate of our country is at stake here.
CHAKRABARTI: And here’s opposition leader Benny Gantz with that same unity message.
BENNY GANTZ (TRANSLATION): Just as young men and women set off to battle from the right and from the left, religious and secular, from rural areas and from cities, thus as well, the difficult decisions in the government will be reached by people who come from different camps. Because at such a time, there is only one camp, the camp of the people of Israel.
CHAKRABARTI: Prime Minister Netanyahu repeated that unity message last week during President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.
NETANYAHU: You’re meeting with our united war cabinet, united and resolved to lead Israel to victory.
CHAKRABARTI: Hamas’s smashing of Israeli security and the killing of more than 1,400 Israelis, according to government officials, may have strongly united the country around Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Gaza, which has thus far killed more than 5,800 Palestinians, according to the Hamas run health ministry in Gaza.
But not that long ago, the three members of the wartime cabinet were anything but united. Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired and then reinstated Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over his opposition to Netanyahu’s plan to radically reform the Israeli judiciary. Netanyahu and his biggest political rival, opposition leader Benny Gantz, went through multiple grueling election cycles before Netanyahu’s Likud party took power again.
Polls earlier this spring showed that if an election had been held this year, Gantz’s National Unity Party may well have won. But of course, on Oct. 7, history turned in an instant. So today, we want to better understand Israel’s key decision makers in this conflict. Who are they? Where are their motivations?
Where do those motivations lie? And how might the politics and dynamics influencing Israel’s top leaders shape the course of the Israel Hamas conflict? We’re joined today by Ruth Margalit. She’s a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. She’s written extensively about Israeli politics, and she joins us from Tel Aviv.
Ruth, welcome to On Point.
RUTH MARGALIT: Hi, thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if you might just begin by helping me test our theory, our thesis that we’re offering here, that the prior relationships between Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant, and opposition leader, the opposition leader, Benny Gantz, are they influencing the behaviors and decisions of the wartime cabinet now?
MARGALIT: Yes, it’s true. And it’s true that there is some rivalry there. Netanyahu and Gallant belong to the same party, the Likud party, the right-wing governing party. But as you mentioned earlier, Netanyahu had fired Gallant back in March over Gallant’s public sort of opposition. It wasn’t even opposition to the judicial overhaul, but Gallant made the point that this was threatening military unity, military cohesion.
And Netanyahu got very upset about this public speech that Gallant had given and fired him the very next day. And then had to awkwardly backtrack from this dismissal two weeks later, after just a wave of public protests and people standing behind Gallant and saying that this dismissal was really wrong.
So Netanyahu had to walk this back, but apparently, this bad blood between them still exists according to sources. And obviously, Benny Gantz comes from the opposition. So he comes from the centrist National Unity Party that ran against Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
And now they’re, the three of them are locked in this cabinet together. I will say that both Gallant and Gantz have extensive defense background. They know each other very well. The two of them seem to be working well right now together. And the very fact that there are no leaks coming out of these wartime cabinet meetings, that could be seen as a good thing, right?
So there is some development going on. It’s not all done for show. Apparently, things are happening there. But it’s also this chaotic situation where Israel does have a security cabinet, about 10 to 15 members ministers belong to that security cabinet. And now you have this war cabinet that’s overriding it.
With two cabinets happening at the same time, and these ministers who don’t belong to the wartime cabinet, itching to know what’s happening there and trying to get their say. It’s all very, there’s a sense of chaos for sure. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: So can you help us understand a little better then, what are the perimeters of power or decision-making power that the wartime cabinet has and why was there the need to even form it?
Because as you said there is a established security cabinet already, right?
MARGALIT: So it was formed as a sort of compromise actually, because Gantz at first, when this war was launched Saturday, Oct. 7, Immediately, there was a call for a national unity, a unity government, and Gantz and another opposition leader, Yair Lapid, both said that they will not join a government with Netanyahu.
So long as Netanyahu had this security cabinet in which there were really extremist far ministers, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, these far-right ministers, settlers, who have no actual say in security matters, neither of them has been conscripted to the military.
They really, not only them, but there are others there whom it was seen as a kind of Netanyahu placating them by giving them seats in the security cabinet. And now suddenly Israel was faced with this major war. And there was a sense that the security cabinet was not at all prepared to face this challenge.
CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump in there, Ruth, for one second to clarify some names that you just put out there. So Smotrich is the finance minister, correct?
MARGALIT: That’s right. He’s the finance minister. And he’s also part of the defense ministry in some sort of strange arrangement. But yes, he’s the finance minister.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, we will talk about him in more detail a little bit later. And Itamar Ben-Gvir is the security minister, correct?
MARGALIT: The national security minister. That’s right. Yes.
CHAKRABARTI: And he is not in this wartime cabinet.
MARGALIT: That’s exactly right. And that was a specific requirement by Gantz. So Gantz and Lapid made this condition that they will not enter a government with Netanyahu so long as these extremist ministers were in power.
And Netanyahu refused. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to fire them because he knew that way, he would lose his majority in government as soon as this war is over. So he refused and there were a few days where Israel was at this sort of deadlock, and we didn’t know where it was going.
And then finally Gantz relented by proposing this compromise in which they will establish this wartime cabinet. In which only Netanyahu, Gallant, and he himself, Benny Gantz, will take part. And this will override all of the security cabinet decisions. And that was seen as a way to handle that situation of these extremist ministers.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So again, we will speak in detail about Smotrich and Ben-Gvir a little bit later in the show, because Ruth, your New Yorker article about Itamar Ben-Gvir was spectacular in its depth in helping us understand how far right these two ministers particularly are. But again, just to understand how unusual this situation is in Israel right now, would it be fair to say, if we had an American metaphor, that if the U.S. had been attacked, that not only the Secretary of Treasury, but the Secretary of Homeland Security, not being on a wartime cabinet seems very out of the ordinary.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s exactly right.
MARGALIT: But I think, yeah, but partly it’s because the very fact that Itamar Ben Gvir holds this position is quite unprecedented.
A man with no security background, who has a background of inciting violence, terrorism, the very fact that someone like him holds this portfolio is in itself a unique position. So it sounds though that by virtue of Gantz pushing for this, the makeup of the wartime cabinet is more centrist than Netanyahu’s non-wartime government, until Oct. 7.
MARGALIT: That’s exactly right. Yes, the wartime cabinet is seen as this sort of centrist force. Even though, if you see the statements coming out, of Gallant and Gantz, they’re very combative, very militant, but that’s the mindset in Israel these days. You have these kinds of bombastic statements coming out, but still, if you look at the personalities forming this cabinet, they’re quite to the center compared to Netanyahu’s really right wing and far right government.
CHAKRABARTI: Given your understanding of Israeli politics and these particular people, and of course, the situation Israel finds itself in now, the critical emergency situation, does it make you think that this sort of centrist wartime cabinet would make, is going to make a different set of decisions than a different kind of security cabinet would.
MARGALIT: I think just the very fact that we’re now more than two weeks into this war and you have the IDF, Israel’s military forces standing prepared to go into Gaza, you have a situation where you have tanks literally on the fence prepared to go into this ground incursion and yet they’re waiting. And the very fact that they’re waiting is seen as under the influence of this war cabinet and this idea that they should wait, and they should be hesitant and know all of the scenarios before going in, that seems to point at its influence.
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