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Benny Gantz, longtime Netanyahu rival, resigns from Israel's war cabinet

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

In Israel, an eventful weekend started with an Israeli military operation that rescued four hostages from Gaza and, according to health authorities there, killed more than 270 Palestinians. It ended with a key member of Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet quitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNY GANTZ: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In a televised statement, Benny Gantz said, Netanyahu prevents us from progressing to real victory. To make sense of these developments, we're joined from Jerusalem by Nimrod Goren. He's a senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, which is a Washington think tank. He's also the president and founder of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for regional foreign policies. Nimrod, welcome to the program.

NIMROD GOREN: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So Nimrod, what is the immediate impact of Benny Gantz's resignation in Netanyahu's government?

GOREN: The resignation of Gantz, who is heading a centrist party that joined an emergency war cabinet just after the Hamas attack on October 7, means that the Israeli political system goes basically back to the situation it was pre the war, meaning Israel has a right-wing coalition with far-right members in top ministerial position and with no moderate party to kind of balance the situation.

And all of that happens when either it's a very decisive point in which it has to make decisions on possible cease-fire hostage release, war escalation with Hezbollah in Lebanon - a lot of decision. At this point of time, the government is being led once again by people who are more extreme on their political beliefs.

SCHMITZ: And as you mentioned, you know, with Gantz out, the only other remaining member of the emergency government with decision-making power is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who's from Netanyahu's Likud party. So is this government now shifting sharply to the right?

GOREN: Gallant is actually the one within the coalition that is still currently in opposition - sort of opposition with Netanyahu. He was more aligned with Gantz and Eisenkot, the former IDF chief of staff who led the party that has now quit. But he's seen as more security oriented, reliable, responsible.

I think the main problem is ministers like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich from the far right, who will now have more of an influence on how decisions will made -will be made. And a lot of attention is now given to what Gallant will actually do because Gantz, when he made his statement yesterday, was implying that Gallant should follow suit and leave the government as well.

SCHMITZ: So Benny Gantz has a good relationship with the United States, and he visited Washington, D.C., in March, which angered Netanyahu. How will Gantz's resignation from the war cabinet impact U.S-Israeli relations as this war drags on?

GOREN: We are in a situation where the American president and administration is putting a lot of pressure both on Israel and Hamas to agree to a deal that will enable some pathway towards an end of war, possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, possible diffusion of tensions in the Lebanon borders. So a lot of things are at stake now for American diplomacy in the region.

And Benny Gantz and his party were trusted allies, were people in the coalition that the U.S. believed it could engage with, that it has leverage on, that could convince perhaps other members of the government to move towards a deal. When these people are out, basically, the U.S. has much less of a leverage to make an impact on Netanyahu decision making.

It is therefore perhaps not by chance it was leaked that the U.S. is considering a separate hostage deal with Hamas only to release those with dual citizenship, i.e. American citizens held by Hamas, putting aside Israel kind of giving up on a chance that the Netanyahu coalition will actually go forth with the proposal it has put on the table itself and that President Biden has echoed.

SCHMITZ: So you just mentioned that the Biden administration is possibly working directly with Hamas. Does that mean now that with Gantz out - that we're going to be seeing more of a kind of a unilateral situation?

GOREN: So the American engagement is going through the mediator, through Qatar and Egypt, and jointly mediating the negotiation with Hamas not direct. But it actually means that we have less and less space for constructive diplomacy on all fronts that Israel is facing. It will also take a toll on Israel's international standing not only with the U.S. but also with other countries as well.

SCHMITZ: Thank you, Nimrod. Nimrod Goren is a senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.

GOREN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.