Gantz’s exit has further empowered Israel’s far right. Here’s what to expect now.

On June 9, after a one-day delay to let the excitement over the rescue of four hostages to subside, Benny Gantz and his National Unity Party exited the Israeli government in a politically risky face-saving maneuver. Gantz had joined the government on October 10, 2023, to demonstrate unity and steady leadership as the country banded together in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately set up a war cabinet with Gantz to marginalize and circumvent his right-wing coalition and the official security cabinet. Over the course of the next eight months, Gantz managed with mixed results to moderate the actions of the government.

He is credited by some with preventing the government from opening a second full-scale front on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon in the earliest days of the war, but he failed to deliver the hostage releases and strategy to end the war that he had sought in his role. His departure comes at a precarious moment for Israel—as the war stretches into its ninth month with no decisive victory against Hamas in sight, Israel is facing growing international isolation and continued threats on its border. With the only centrist now exiting, Netanyahu and his extreme right coalition government, absent early elections, will be left to manage these crises on their own.

The immediate impact of Gantz’s departure on the government is modest. The right-wing ruling coalition still holds sixty-four of the 120 Knesset seats; only the departure of one of the far-right parties or five members of Netanyahu’s Likud party could lead to the government’s collapse. Thus far, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whose strained relationship with Netanyahu has been the source of much media fodder, has resisted Gantz’s overtures to exit as well. The war cabinet on which both served may be dismantled. The response among the Israeli public has been tepid, at best. Many criticized Gantz for not exiting sooner, and Israelis have not been emboldened to take to the streets in any greater numbers than they have been. Fellow leaders of the opposition quietly welcomed Gantz into their ranks.

But there are now fewer voices at the table demanding reason, and Netanyahu’s right flank has already been emboldened. Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir immediately demanded to join the cabinet, identifying Gantz’s departure as “a very big opportunity.” Ben-Gvir and the far right are demanding continued escalation on all fronts: in Gaza, in the West Bank, and against Hezbollah in Lebanon. These demands leave Netanyahu squarely at odds with the United States and the wider international community. At a time when the legitimacy of the coalition government and its war in Gaza are under immense scrutiny from the international community, Netanyahu’s government will be further tarnished by Gantz’s departure. His exit will further strain Israel’s relations with the United States, which has often turned to Gantz as a voice of reason. On a visit to Israel just days after the resignation, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notably kept his meeting with now-opposition leader Gantz; Gantz reportedly used the meeting to urge the US government to exert “maximum pressure” on negotiators—something he himself is no longer in a position to do.

Israel continues to face consequential—arguably existential—decisions over the fate of Gaza, the prospect of war in Lebanon, and the delicate balance between Israel’s religious character and its secular needs. Indeed, the three major issues Gantz had weighed in on—a hostage deal, a conscription deal for Haredi who are currently exempt from military service, and fighting in the north—are now solely in the hands of the far-right government to decide. Netanyahu can also no longer rely on Gantz as a foil: Any steps antithetical to the demands of the right will be entirely his own.

To the frustration of Gantz, the United States, and the international community, Netanyahu has failed to commit to a plan for the day after the war ends in Gaza. As Gantz said of Netanyahu in his departure, “fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitancy and procrastination due to political considerations.” This will continue to be the case. Netanyahu will likely aim to keep his coalition together through the Knesset’s parliamentary session in July and to try to avoid calling for elections until his poll numbers are more favorable and after the US elections take place in the fall.

At the same time, the burden to pressure the Israeli government to accept a ceasefire deal now lies squarely with two parties: the United States and Hamas. Only Hamas can hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire. If Hamas accepts the hostage proposal currently on the table, Netanyahu will be forced to decide between the survival of his government, which opposes the deal, and a hostage agreement that he has largely agreed to. Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid has promised Netanyahu a “safety net,” offering to join the coalition government in order to pass a ceasefire deal in the event of far-right defections. But this safety net could be short-lived—long enough to secure the release of the hostages but brief enough to ensure the demise of Netanyahu’s government. If instead, Netanyahu abandons his commitment to a hostage deal, choosing his right flank and political survival over the release of hostages and the many offerings from the US government—including a prospective Saudi normalization deal—it will come at great cost for the millions of Israelis and Palestinians desperately awaiting a peaceful, more secure day after.

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: Israeli Minister Benny Gantz addresses the media after his ultimatum to withdraw his centrist party from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emergency government expired, in Ramat Gan, Israel June 9, 2024. REUTERS/Nir Elias