Israel’s Wartime Government Frays as Frustration with Netanyahu Grows

Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with an ultimatum on Saturday, saying he would leave the government if it did not soon develop a plan for the future of the war in Gaza.

While Mr. Gantz’s departure would not topple the country’s emergency wartime government, the move would further strain a fragile coalition that has provided Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government with a boost of international legitimacy, and it would make the prime minister even more reliant on his hard-line partners.

“If you choose the path of zealots, dragging the country into the abyss, we will be forced to leave the government,” Mr. Gantz said in a televised news conference. “We will turn to the people and build a government that will earn the people’s trust.”

Mr. Gantz, who leads the National Unity party, said he would give Mr. Netanyahu until June 8 — three weeks’ time — to develop a plan that would aim to secure the release of hostages taken to Gaza by Hamas-led militants on Oct. 7, address the future governance of the territory, return displaced Israelis to their homes and advance normalization with Saudi Arabia, among other issues.

Mr. Gantz’s ultimatum was the latest sign of pressure building on Mr. Netanyahu to develop a postwar plan. The prime minister is increasingly being squeezed — externally from Israel’s closest ally, the United States, and from within his own War Cabinet — to clarify a strategy for Gaza. Just days earlier, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, said the government was charting “a dangerous course” and demanded that Mr. Netanyahu immediately pledge not to establish an Israeli military government in Gaza.

In a response to Mr. Gantz’s ultimatum, Mr. Netanyahu accused the former military chief of staff and a longtime political rival of calling for “Israeli defeat” by effectively allowing Hamas to remain in power.

Mr. Gantz, he added, was “choosing to place ultimatums for the prime minister, rather than for Hamas.”

Domestic frustration is also mounting over Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to secure the freedom of the hostages remaining in Gaza. Israeli forces on Saturday recovered the body of an Israeli man held in Gaza since Oct. 7, the fourth body recovered in two days, raising fears about the fates of roughly 128 captives still in the enclave.

Even as Israeli politicians wrestled with how to finish the war, the effects of the current strategy were playing out in Gaza.

Israeli ground forces pressed onward in the eastern outskirts of the city of Rafah on Saturday, the Israeli military said. In a statement on Saturday morning, Hamas said its fighters had fired on Israeli troops in eastern Rafah, as well as close to the Rafah border crossing.

As the war enters its eighth month, more than 34,000 people have died in Gaza, according to the health authorities there, but the Israeli military has otherwise made slow progress in reaching the government’s stated goals of dismantling Hamas and freeing the hostages.

Negotiations over a cease-fire that would release a number of hostages have stalled, with Israel and Hamas at odds over the conditions for a truce. Israeli troops have also had to return to parts of northern Gaza to combat a renewed Hamas insurgency. And Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the politically powerful Lebanese armed group, continue to bombard one another across the border, leaving tens of thousands of Israelis displaced with little idea when they might return home.

Mr. Gantz joined the Israeli government after Oct. 7 as an emergency wartime measure. The result has been a fragile and fractious coalition, with Mr. Gantz and his allies trading fire with Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right allies and occasionally the prime minister himself.

To some extent, both Mr. Gallant’s and Mr. Gantz’s criticisms echoed those of U.S. officials. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this week that Israel had to produce a “clear, concrete plan” for postwar governance in Gaza.

The United States has sought to empower the Palestinian Authority, the group that controls much of the occupied West Bank, to govern Gaza. But Mr. Netanyahu and his allies have rejected that idea, proposing that Palestinians unaffiliated with Hamas or the P.A. take over.

The Biden administration has also called for the establishment of a Palestinian state — of which Gaza would be an integral part — a proposal that has lost support in Israel since the Hamas led terrorist attack on Oct. 7.

On Saturday, Mr. Gantz vowed not to “allow any party, whether friends or enemies, to impose a Palestinian state upon us,” echoing Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric opposing Palestinian sovereignty.

Until a permanent solution is found, Mr. Gantz said, Gaza should be temporarily run by an “American-European-Arab-Palestinian” civil administration, with Israeli security oversight. Mr. Gantz joined Mr. Netanyahu in dismissing any role for the internationally backed P.A.

The discovery of dead hostages and a resurgence of Hamas fighting in recent days has highlighted the failures of Mr. Netanyahu’s current strategy.

Israeli forces said on Saturday they had recovered the body of Ron Binyamin, 53, an Israeli man and the fourth hostage brought back to Israel for burial over the past two days.

Around 124 of the more than 250 people taken hostage on Oct. 7 are still in Gaza, according to the Israeli authorities. Another four captives have been held there for years, since well before the Hamas attack. At least 35 of the remaining hostages are presumed dead, according to Israeli government statistics.

As fighting in Gaza has intensified near the southern city of Rafah, the flow of aid to the enclave has dwindled. Trucks laden with humanitarian aid began rolling onto the shores of Gaza this week through a temporary pier built by the United States.

But American officials and aid groups emphasized that the new sea corridor could not replace land border crossings, the most efficient way of getting supplies to the territory’s civilians. Only 310 aid trucks have entered Gaza through those crossings in the 10 days since Israel began its military incursion in the southern city of Rafah, United Nations officials said on Friday.

That is far shy of the more than 500 a day that aid organizations say is needed to maintain even minimally acceptable living conditions.

Humanitarian workers have repeatedly warned that famine is looming amid severe shortages of basic goods among civilians, many of whom have been displaced multiple times. More than 800,000 Palestinians have been forced to flee Rafah since Israel began a military offensive on May 6, according to UNRWA, the primary U.N. agency for Palestinians.

Israel continues to characterize its offensive in and around Rafah as a “limited operation” against Hamas. But recent satellite imagery showed widening destruction and suggested that a significant incursion was already underway. On Thursday, Israel said it would send more forces to Rafah, signaling that it intended to attack deeper into the city despite international concerns about the threat to civilians posed by a full-scale invasion.

Rafah had become home to more than one million Palestinians who fled their homes elsewhere in Gaza seeking a modicum of safety, even as the Israeli military continued to carry out airstrikes on the city. It was one of the last places that had not been invaded by Israeli soldiers.

Now, many Palestinians are seeking shelter in places like the central city of Deir al Balah and Al-Mawasi, a coastal area west of Khan Younis. Both are overcrowded and facing dire conditions, U.N. and aid groups have said. In the north, Israeli attacks and new military evacuation orders have displaced more than 160,000 people from several areas around Gaza City, according to UNRWA.

Mohammed al-Lahham and his family fled Rafah last week and returned to Khan Younis, their hometown in Gaza and a city scarred by Israeli bombardment. They hoped they would not be forced to flee again.

“The situation here in my city is unbearable, but at least it is better than living in a tent,” said Mr. al-Lahham, 41, a plumber and father of five. “I am finally back in Khan Younis, my hometown, where I know its people and places and streets.”

The dearth of aid has forced families like the al-Lahhams to fend almost entirely for themselves.

On Thursday, Mr. al-Lahham stood in line with two of his sons to fill cans with water from a large tank brought in by a charity. And while the water that day was free, nothing else in the battered city was, with prices in the markets jumping, amid shortages of food and limited commercial goods.

Raja Abdulrahim, Bilal Shbairand Victoria Kim contributed reporting.

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