‘Unity is Strength” read a huge banner draped over a bridge on an approach road to the Gaza border communities this week. But despite the public clamoring for such a self-evident decision in the midst of a crisis on this scale, it wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that the politicians finally took the plunge: five days after the start of the fighting.
The new war cabinet includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Unity Party head Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Former IDF chief of staff and National Unity member Gadi Eisenkot and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer from the Likud will serve as observers in the limited cabinet.
In addition, National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, along with Chili Tropper and Yifat Shasha-Biton, have been appointed ministers-without-portfolio.
The judicial reform is on hold
The new war cabinet will pass no legislation unrelated to the war, according to the agreement. In other words, the controversial judicial overhaul is now on hold, along with other divisive legislation that the government had planned to introduce during the Knesset winter session, such as the haredi draft exemption law and legislation to reform Israeli broadcasting.
All senior appointments will be automatically extended during the war period. Governor of the Bank of Israel Prof. Amir Yaron announced that given the state of emergency and the challenges facing the Israeli economy at this difficult hour, he has acceded to the request that he extend his tenure.
“We put all other considerations aside, as the fate of our country hangs in the balance,” Netanyahu said at a joint announcement on Wednesday night.
Gantz said: “This isn’t a political partnership; this is a shared fate. We are lending a shoulder and are enlisting in the war that is being prosecuted by the prime minister and the defense minister.”
A spot has been kept open for opposition leader Yair Lapid, should he decide to join the emergency government.
Neither he nor Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman will be members of the emergency government, after both set conditions that Netanyahu refused to accept. Lapid conditioned his participation in a unity coalition on the exclusion of both Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich from the government. Liberman demanded a written pledge from the prime minister that Hamas would be totally eliminated.
There were voices in Yesh Atid supporting joining the unity government, but the decision for now remains to stay out.
MOVES TOWARD unity are the order of the day during periods of crisis. On June 5, 1967, the day the Six Day War broke out, opposition leader Menachem Begin was sworn in as minister-without-portfolio in Levi Eshkol’s government.
Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar from the Likud welcomed Wednesday’s news: “Thank God there is a unity government for the State of Israel. And now, we are all together for victory in the war and the complete destruction of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. This is what the people of Israel expected from us because only together will we win, with God’s help.”
MK Matan Kahana from the National Unity Party also endorsed the move. “A unified emergency government is what is needed now to lead to victory in the war. With God’s help, we will do it and we will succeed.”
Coalition sources confirmed that the delay in establishing a unity government was due to the prime minister’s desire to maintain the cohesion of his 64-member coalition.
He only committed to the move after securing broad support from coalition party heads. The only dissenting voice was from Ben-Gvir, the head of Otzma Yehudit, who has been further marginalized by the unity coalition.
Gallant welcomed the formation of the unity government as a development that will help win the war.
“We will wipe out this thing called Hamas,” Gallant said at a press conference after the deal was signed. “Hamas – the Islamic State of Gaza – will be wiped from the face of the earth. It will not continue to exist. There will be no situation in which Israeli children are murdered and we all go about our business.”
So, 10 months of bitter political divisions have been put to the side temporarily, in order to focus on conducting the war without interference.
“We were dealing with nonsense; that’s clear to everyone,” said Education Minister Yoav Kisch, in a reference to the struggle over reforming the judiciary. “And when I say we, I mean everyone.”
The formation of a temporary war cabinet represents somewhat of a political risk for Gantz. If the handling of the ground operation goes badly, he will be forced to share the responsibility. Sources within his party acknowledge the risks but argue that when the country is facing one of its most difficult hours, there is simply no choice, and Gantz and Eisenkot, two former IDF chiefs of staff, must contribute their considerable military expertise for the good of the country following the debacle of the Hamas attack. From here on, key decisions will be made in a more reasoned manner, with the backing of most of the population.
No one across the political spectrum is willing to talk about the day after, but there is a strong sentiment among much of the public that the catastrophe of October 2023 will be Netanyahu’s legacy, and that after such a trauma he will have no choice but to exit stage left.
The unity government will last only for the duration of the conflict. The bad blood between Netanyahu and Gantz remains and will likely never disappear. At the conclusion of the war, the National Unity Party will return to the opposition and join the call for answers from the political leadership and the military and intelligence echelons.
The national commission of inquiry into the 1973 Yom Kippur war, led by president of the Supreme Court Shimon Agranat, eventually led to the resignation of prime minister Golda Meir.
A similar fate for Netanyahu is a distinct possibility.