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Israel’s war cabinet was set up to fail Gaza is no longer Netanyahu's priority

Anti-government protestors in Tel Aviv at the weekend (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Anti-government protestors in Tel Aviv at the weekend (Amir Levy/Getty Images)


June 18, 2024   4 mins

Yesterday, the inevitable happened. Israel’s war cabinet, a collection of people who largely despise each other, finally collapsed; and with it, the last vestiges of hope for a speedy resolution to the ongoing carnage in Gaza.

The end effectively came last week, when Benny Gantz resigned and pulled his National Unity alliance out of the emergency government, exasperated by Netanyahu’s refusal to draw up a plan for the aftermath of the war. He was then joined by Gadi Eisenkot, the most moderate of the five members of the body. Netanyahu, presiding over a council that could no longer plausibly claim to represent a unified Knesset, was forced to pull the plug.

The problem here isn’t hard to glean. Gantz and Eisenkot were two of the more moderate voices in the coalition (and indeed contemporary Israeli politics). More than this, they are, unlike Netanyahu, both proper military men. Ganz is a former Chief of the General Staff; Eisenkot is a former Head of IDF Northern Command. Their resignation is a loss both to Israel’s military campaign and to its politics.

It was Gantz and Eisenkot who insisted a war cabinet be set up before they agreed to join Netanyahu’s emergency government in late 2023. Their rationale was twofold. First, the country needed to come together in a moment of national crisis; and second, they wanted to, as far as possible, sideline national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, a couple of bloviating extremists with little military understanding or interest beyond constantly urging a more aggressive approach and rejecting any concessions for the release of the hostages. Over the past six months, these malignant cranks have spent much of their airtime arguing for the reestablishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza.

The breakdown of the cabinet is, in certain regards, a microcosm of the problems facing Israel. For a start, the state’s ludicrous parliamentary system of almost pure proportional representation means that every single Israeli government is a coalition. This, in turn, means they almost always contain minor parties populated with various loons who are elevated to the role of kingmakers. It also means that governments tend not to see out their full terms. This is a legacy of Israel’s socialist beginnings; and it was perhaps the most egregious error David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founder, ever made. The results are plain 80 years later. Netanyahu feverishly needs both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to keep his coalition together — especially now. He has no choice but to take account of their various religious and political pathologies. Without them, he’s out.

Perhaps the second greatest mistake Ben Gurion ever made was to exempt the Orthodox Jewish Israelis from military service. He did this because, back then, there were relatively few of them (they made up around 5% of the population). They didn’t have to serve or pay tax, because they fulfilled their duty by “praying for the state”. Obviously, Ben Gurion knew this was nonsense, but it was the easiest way to keep them on side. The problem is: when you don’t have to pay taxes, and indeed get a host of benefits for doing essentially nothing, you tend to have a lot of children (as the Orthodox do anyway), especially when you get benefits for every child. There are now expected to be two million Haredis by 2033.

In early June, as the Supreme Court heard arguments that the exemptions are unlawful, dozens of Haredis blocked roads in protest. The tensions around this issue cannot be underestimated. At the turn of the century, I flew to Israel to take part in a debating competition when I was Chairman of Debating at the Inner Temple during an ill-advised (and ill-fated) foray into law. Inner Temple were the reigning champions and, with my debate partner Michael (a Northerner who had lived in Israel for 20 years), I had to bring the oversized trophy. For this, I purchased extra legroom seats on the El Al flight so we could rest the trophy securely in front of us. After dozing off for a while, I awoke to find the space occupied by two Haredis davening (praying). As they rocked back and forth, a look of disgust passed across Michael’s face. “Fuck off!” he roared. “Michael, you can’t speak to them like that,” I whispered, mortified. “Fuck ‘em — freeloaders,” he retorted. “And pay some fucking tax!” he bellowed at their retreating figures.

“Netanyahu is a masterful politician, but, more than this, he is an old man desperate to stay in power.”

These issues have dominated Israeli politics for decades. Now, they threaten to unravel it. Netanyahu is a masterful politician, but, more than this, he is an old man desperate to stay in power. All his political skills are now devoted to this; winning the war is a secondary priority. He knows that when all this is finally done, the official enquiry will come and, as prime minister, he will not be able to escape blame.

With the more reasonable and more military experienced voices now gone, the prognosis for the sanity and pragmatism of Israeli government decision-making does not look good. Israel is engaged in a war in which its avowed and overarching objective — the total elimination of Hamas — has already failed. It had recent success in rescuing four hostages in operation “Seeds of Summer”, an extraordinary military operation involving its special forces. But the effect is ultimately limited. Especially given, as an IDF official admitted to me in Tel Aviv, there is a belief that many of the hostages are now dead. 

With no military solution likely, only a political one remains — to the degree that any “solution” to all this is possible, which I suspect it is not. The best that can be hoped for is a cease of hostilities and some kind of governmental transition to ensure that a terror group like Hamas cannot govern Gaza again. The problem is that there is now a nexus of interests at the centre of Israeli politics that is less interested in compromise. And pragmatism and compromise will always have to come from Israel because, even though Hamas started all this, Israel is a democratic state, and Hamas is a bolus of psychopathic thugs.

At several points since Hamas’s attack, I’ve returned to the words of a fellow Middle East analyst who, over a beer in a Jerusalem bar, summed up the Israel-Palestinian conflict to me in a single sentence. Looking more exhausted than anything else, he replied: “I think the technical term for all this is irretrievably fucked.”


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
1 month ago

As a result of the coalition process and a deal Ben Gurion made at the time of the founding of the State of Israel, there are many ultra-orthodox men not working, not fighting in the army and receiving welfare payments. That also cannot last.
Anyway, a great country and a great people. Hopefully they can innovate a way out of this mess.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

Yeah, that’s messed up. You can’t run a country where some groups are exempt from paying taxes. I wonder what stops everyone converting to Orthodox Judaism.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Shagging thru a hole in a sheet, perhaps ?

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago

So limit welfare support to two years. Destitution is a great motivator to work.

Hardin Jones
Hardin Jones
19 hours ago
Reply to  Arthur King

So not a Jewish State then as most Jews believe in peace.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

This author’s rant fails to persuade of his point. He’s succeeded, however, in convincing me that he’s a bloviating crank (to use his poignant phrases), with a sharply limited grasp of complex geopolitics and local military matters. Like a ranting rider sitting next to you on the train, the only thing he manages to convince you of is to move to the next car.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

“bloviating crank” – I used to have one of these for when the car battery was flat, but the car did have a Wankel engine.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

😉

Hardin Jones
Hardin Jones
19 hours ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Yet you are unable to provide an articulate rebuttal, just toys out of the pram drivel.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

I would recommend this article to anybody who thinks Britain needs Proportional Representation.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

For all its flaws, FPTP is the far better system IMO. The Americans have muted the tyranny of the majority with its effective Senate structure and state’s rights. I wonder if the gong show that is Europe is partially due to the prevalence of PR?

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

America being the way it is, is the best possible argument against FPTP. I don’t recognise it as a democracy, I consider it to have an electoral system. The Republicans and the Democrats are so large and so dominant, they both feed off each other and construct the culture war which they themselves inhabit.

Americans have “muted the tyranny of the majority” because it’s an oligarchic state where the enormous intelligence apparatus operates outside of legality, acting as both secret police and international agent.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

That may be true but it’s not due to the existence of the Electoral College or the the way that the Senate is designed. We’re a Republic not a “democracy”.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

I would argue that Europe is in much worse shape than the U.S. The single biggest problem with the American system is the lack of campaign spending limits. It has encouraged corruption on a shocking scale.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Here here. I have a little chuckle each and every time the designs of our founding fathers and their eminent pragmatism from over two centuries ago confound the grand designs of social engineers, tyrants, zealots, witch hunters, and globalist utopians. It happens so often now to be comical. To hear them scream so earnestly about the electoral college or the unfairness of the Senate and know that the chance of changing either system is basically zero thanks to the exact same political conflicts that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Adams recognized two centuries ago, the same political conflicts that led to them adopting the current system in the first place, is music to my ears. I’m thankful for life’s small blessings.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin M

The Israeli system is in fact even worse than the article describes it.
There are only 120 representatives in the Knesset. This might have been OK in the fledgling state of less a million citizens but is now way too few people.
Every party entering a coalition primarily wants to be ministerial appointments. As a result governments are bloated and government ministries are invented in order to give important sounding jobs to some thirty people, where half as many could do the job more efficiently and cost less money.
Proportional representation means that parties run as party lists for the Knesset, not individual candidates. The lists are either selected by an internal party committee or at some supposedly democratic party governing body. This means that the voter is generally voting for the leader of the party and has little clue who the candidates on the list are and no control over their identities. The elected representatives are only answerable to party bosses and not to the general public.
In an attempt to mitigate the problem of the excessive power in the hands of small parties, there is a minimum vote cut-off you need to get in order to get in. Currently it is set at 4 seats. Below that you votes are lost. This means that people will vote tactically to avoid parties rumored or polled to be under the cut-off, thus forcing them below, and encourages conglomeration of parties (sometimes just for the election, after which they split up). Rather than solving any problem, this actually further destabilizes the system as it makes it increasingly difficult to attain a majority as the it reduces the choice in the coalition market. This is what has happened in the last few years where we had successive elections where no party could form a coalition.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
1 month ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

What would be needed to change the basic law (I understand Israel has no constitution)? Is there any desire to do so?

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
1 month ago

Leaving aside Netanyahu being a violent war criminal, and the rest of the, shall we say ‘colourful history’ of the Israeli state, why should the Ultra Orthodox be conscripted by a government that doesn’t represent them and has plenty of soldiers as it is?

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

In what sense does Israel, the Jewish state, not represent them?

Hardin Jones
Hardin Jones
19 hours ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

Jews believe in peace. And they don’t believe in a Jewish state, or the gathering of Jews – until the return of the Messiah.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Whybrow

The ultra-orthodox are very well represented in the government, get paid automatic grants for learning Torah and welfare payments and tax breaks (contrary to what the article asserts, they are liable for taxes) for their large families. They insist on not teaching any secular studies to their children above basic math and have a low participation rate in the workforce. As their proportion in the population grows, this situation becomes increasingly untenable. Especially now in the aftermath of 7th October 2023, where the country is fighting against the Iranian threat, with hundreds of dead and thousands of injured.
The country has far from “plenty of soldiers as it is”. The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) leadership refuse to see this as for them, draft to the army as an existential threat to their way of life, and they refuse to budge. To be fair they are not the only people in the country who do not serve. Only about 50% of young people are actually drafted. The other half are Arabs (~20%), Haredim (~10%), people with real medical issues, and an assortment of draft-dodgers. Seeing as most of the Arab population are never going to be drafted, the Haredim are the biggest ideological non-draftees, and hence the public anger towards them.

Marc Ambler
Marc Ambler
1 month ago

“More than this, they are, unlike Netanyahu, both proper military men”. One needs no more than this statement to realise that the writer is part of the deranged smear Netanyahu campaign. Netanyahu served 6 years in the IDF, and returned from MIT to fight in the Yom Kippur war. He rose to the rank of captain. He was wounded at least twice and nearly lost his life. What more is required to be considered a ‘proper’ military man? This article can be dismissed as sincere journalism.

Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye
1 month ago
Reply to  Marc Ambler

In fact Gantz and Eisenkot are both former chiefs of the general staff (unlike what Patrikarakos wrote), career military, whereas Netanyahu was a low rank officer. There is no comparison. That said, Ben Gurion’s direct military experience in the British army in 1918 was a lot more limited than Netanyahu’s even, and he still successfully led the burgeoning IDF during Israel’s toughest war, the 1948 war of independence. So military experience is not dispositive. Leadership qualities are. This is where Netanyahu falls short. He is putting his own political survival ahead of that of the country. This is why G&E could not serve as Bibi’s fig leaves in the war coalition anymore.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Danny Kaye

I used to love you in ‘Hans Christian Andersen’. It’s such a shame you gave up the movie biz.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago
Reply to  Marc Ambler

Netanyahu’s brother also died at Entebbe.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
1 month ago

It’s an extremely foolish idea to grant a demographic group in society any privilege, especially one as enormous as those given to the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel.

Of course this is going to now bite them. Taking privileges is much, much tougher than giving them.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

With no military solution likely, only a political one remains 
That sounds very much like another conflict that the West is doing its best to perpetuate.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
1 month ago

What a terrible article… but an illuminating one – just illuminating the author rather than his subject.
I’m not an Orthodox Jew, and if I ran Israel, they would pay taxes and serve in the military. But to sneeringly dismiss their religious beliefs, and the idea that prayer is a meaningful activity with social consequence, just demonstrates how poorly qualified this author is to evaluate the complex internal political relations of a state founded specifically to provide a refuge for an ethno-religious group.
This is to say nothing of his abject failure to grasp the sociological significance of the Orthodox’s beliefs… as if tax benefits are what lead to high birthrates! The evidence is clear – it’s not tax-system tinkering but religious belief that leads to an enthusiasm for the children and their future. Again, I would withdraw their benefits myself, but not because I was trying to reduce their birthrates.
As for his critique of proportional representation… it takes about two seconds of exposure to US punditry to see people complaining about the political duopoly America has. “The grass is always greener” etc. And it’s not like FPTP systems don’t have nutcases and weirdos, too. That’s just an inevitable outcome of a divided and diverse electorate.
There is a saying: “Two Jews, three opinions.” There is something in the national culture of Israel that encourages the fierce advocacy of even minor policy differences. Don’t think for a moment that switching to a political duopoly would eliminate that.
And all that is to leave aside his tedious standard-issue critique of Netanyahu… It seems to be only people who no authority or responsibility who are confident that a solution is available to Netanyahu in Gaza, but his own political cowardice prevents him from seizing it. But then they never get around to fleshing out what that solution is. The reason Netanyahu hasn’t proposed a solution yet is because (a) proposing a post-war governance solution for Gaza would immediately distract from the primary task: eliminating as much as possible Hamas’ ability to kill Israelis, and (b) any proposed solution could well be rendered irrelevant by changing military, political and economic forces long before it could be implemented. What’s really going on? Critics focusing on the post-war situation are using it as a way of trying to force Netanyahu to end the war early. That’s the real question for Netanyahu… do the people who killed all those Israelis deserve to live and rule still? His answer (and most Israelis) is clear.
And this guy is UnHerd’s “foreign correspondent”? Sheesh.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

I like the cut of your jib, sir!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

An excellent comment, Kirk; worthy of being an article in its own right. Thank you, sir.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

He’s basically correct in his analysis. He made the point already that the Haredi have high birth rates, which the benefits system encourages, but does not cause. On the substantive issue of outrageous and unjustified benefits being showered on one section of society, you yourself it seems would be on the “liberal” side of the argument were you in authority in Israel. You would then no doubt be subject to the ire of the religious hard liners! (“No, no, I’m your friend”!?).

Israel always used to be a realist power, now it seems to be pushing itself, tragically, away from the few allies it actually has. The political leader also needs to take some responsibility for the complete lack of preparedness of Israel for the 7th of October attack, and Netanyahu has lamentably failed to do this. And unfortunately Netanyahu and his allies have employed far too much of a supposedly clever divide-and-rule approach, which have strengthened and emboldened Hamas.

Netanyahu has been whatever his other faults, used to be a skilful politician – but is a desperate liability to Israel now.

Hardin Jones
Hardin Jones
19 hours ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

It’s Bibi that doesn’t respect the Orthodox Jews – or Judasim. He’s secular and non-observant. Now he expects these peace loving Jews to fight. He’s not interested in Judaism – just his own political survival. Unfortunately for Israel – he’s destroying it.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

the ongoing carnage in Gaza – You don’t need to read any further.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago

Tell me what you really think Davey!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

Interesting, but I take exception to “its avowed objective…the total elimination of Hamas… has already failed”‘ I don’t think that’s so. The Israelis could kill that beast Sinwar tomorrow. That would change everything.
It seems odd to me that everyone is forgetting the real story. There are still a lot of men in Gaza who deserve to die truly miserable deaths for what they did on Oct 7. And not all of them are Hamas. We would all be better off if they were no longer among us.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

The Israelis “could kill that beast”. Ok why don’t they? There are lots of ranting armchair warriors here. The reality is that sometimes the good guys and the best systemd don’t win. Simple revenge is none likely to be a good geopolitical policy, not least when your actions are dividing you more and more from your main sponsor the United States.

Very unfortunately (I would agree with you) Islamic radicalism is on the rise in the world and it is unlikely to be defeated by Israel bombing Gaza to bits – much as I understand why they are doing so. Either had to accomplish their objectives very quickly or probably not succeed. And the pro right wing argument never acknowledges the fact that undoubtedly Israel on the right of centre governments fostered Hamas as an opposition force to Fatah with whom Israeli right wingers didn’t really want an agreement.

I have a Jewish friend who is very interesting on the subject. When Rabin was assassinated there was a huge coming together of Israeli society under desire for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Perhaps this was ultimately an illusion but in any case any hope was scuppered by Hamas launching a wave of brutal rocket and suicide attacks etc. This then in turn (understandably) empowered a move to an uncompromising Right in Israel. I’m in no way comparing the Israeli right wing with Hamas (although there are some pretty far out loons in Israeli society too) – but the two “extremes” actually in practice empower each other.

Hardin Jones
Hardin Jones
19 hours ago

But they haven’t killed him. They released him. They could have released Marwan Barghouti who was much easier to deal with and wanted peace. But no, they released Sinwar. No prizes for guessing why. Wars make money.

Ryan K
Ryan K
1 month ago

I like Mr. Patrikarakos’s writing….I don’t see any road for “pragmatism” Any negotiations with a terrorist entity rule by terrorists means Israel caves to all their demands, gets the living and dead…..in stages………and releases most of the Arab terrorists in Israel’s prisons. What a slap to the faces of the families of those who have lost beloved family members. So the tortured survivors come home, the dead are buried, and hamas is left in power. Will Israel be required to help rebuild Gaza? Probably in any “pragmatic” negotiations. My first thought was Netanyahu must go. Now it’s he must stay. Gantz , Lapid, the whole crew look weak and feckless. As for Ben Gurion’s mistakes…yes,,,given a state of a million including Holocaust survivors and then survivors of the Arab countries. Lots of Jews look askance at the Haredi and Hasidic communities. Aside from bogarting your paid for extra space on a flight so they can daven.

Bullfrog Brown
Bullfrog Brown
1 month ago

The best seven words of this article are ‘ Hamas is a bolus of psychopathic thugs’ .. so until world organisations, leading economies, charities, other nations, especially the Arab world ‘wake up’ and do something positive, ISRAEL will have to deal with these thugs .. which includes Hezbollah and IRAN.

Phil Re
Phil Re
1 month ago

If the goal is to understand the current war, I don’t think focusing on the personalities in Israel’s war cabinet is the most illuminating approach. Here are some of the things that matter:
-The Israeli public is with Netanyahu in understanding that Hamas must be decisively defeated as an organized military force in Gaza.
-Israel would almost certainly have completed this objective weeks ago if the US had not been actively meddling to keep Hamas in power. Netanyahu has not been immune to the pressure and the constraints the Biden administration has imposed.
-Hamas would not have been emboldened to invade Israel on October 7 if the US under Obama and Biden hadn’t decided to prioritize US relations with Iran over relations with Israel and granted Iran $60 billion in sanctions relief since Biden took office.
-The Biden Administration repeatedly tried to depose Netanyahu in the middle of the war by directing an anti-Netanyahu protest movement in Israel, an effort the Israeli public was able to see through.
-Some in Israel’s military establishment are bypassing the political echelon to align themselves with the Biden administration.
-The US has repeatedly leaned on Israel to cede the initiative to Hezbollah in the north.
-In all, the US has shown what an extremely dangerous ally it has become.