Israel’s War Cabinet Reflects the National Consensus, for Now

The five men who make up Israel’s war cabinet have more than a century of military experience among them and decades of political and diplomatic know-how.

The cabinet was formed five days after Israel declared war on Gaza to temporarily unify Israel’s political factions and ensure its steadiest hands were in charge during a national crisis. Its members share histories of fierce competition and betrayal, making them the quintessential team of rivals.

Hints of those personal tensions surface from time to time, particularly when one member holds a solo news conference, or when they shift uncomfortably during joint briefings, practically grimacing when reporters ask how they are getting along.

But in contrast to the ultranationalist and deeply polarizing government that was on watch on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led attackers surged across the border from Gaza, killing about 1,200 people and abducting 240 others, according to Israeli officials, this lean, decision-making forum is widely viewed as a functional, professional body.

Working discreetly, the cabinet has gained the Israeli public’s trust, experts said. Its diverse political makeup, they added, has lent the government greater legitimacy abroad, ultimately buying the military more time to achieve its goals in Gaza — dismantling Hamas and bringing home the remaining hostages — amid intensifying international pressure.

It has also bought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu time in the face of public anger over his government’s failures surrounding the Oct. 7 attack, — as well as created new political risks.

“The war cabinet has created a sense of confidence that decisions are not based on political considerations but are balanced and focused” on national objectives, said Tzipi Livni, who served as a government minister during two of Israel’s previous wars. “There is a huge public in Israel whose family members are serving in Gaza, in mortal danger,” she added.

Israeli tanks near the border with Gaza last month.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The cabinet consists of the conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a retired general; two political centrists and former military chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who crossed parliamentary lines to join the Netanyahu government as an emergency measure; and Ron Dermer, a seasoned Netanyahu confidant and former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Israelis’ trust in their leaders was in short supply after the government and intelligence failures of Oct. 7. Mr. Netanyahu’s regular security cabinet, which would have ordinarily overseen a war, was viewed as too unwieldy and politically fractious, with 10 members and additional observers, including far-right extremists who aspire to re-establish Jewish settlements in Gaza.

The five-member war cabinet, by contrast, was established to efficiently make decisions about the war. In a nation that relies on an army of conscripts and volunteers, it has been key to maintaining consensus.

For many Israelis, that sense of solidarity was bolstered over the past week when one cabinet member, Mr. Eisenkot, lost both a son and a nephew to the fighting in Gaza.

His loss, Ms. Livni said, “conveyed the message that we are all in this together.”

Gadi Eisenkot, a former military chief of staff and a centrist member of Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet, during the funeral of his son, First Sergeant Major Gal Meir Eisenkot, who was killed fighting in Gaza.Credit…Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Yet, even as the country has rallied around Mr. Netanyahu’s war effort, he has been criticized for using the moment to play politics. Ever the political survivor, he saw his long career face its most perilous moment on Oct. 7. In elevating his rivals from the opposition, the prime minister has seen his political risks grow.

A recent survey of nearly 700 Israeli adults showed Mr. Gantz’s National Unity party surging ahead, winning a putative 37 seats in the 120-seat Parliament compared to 18 for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud. No date, however, has been set for a new election, and new parties may yet shuffle the political deck.

But the war has undoubtedly changed the country’s political trajectory. On the eve of Oct. 7 Israeli society was torn over the government’s plan to curb the powers of the judiciary even as Mr. Netanyahu was being tried on corruption charges. After months of mass protests, thousands of army reservists, including those from elite units, threatened to quit, arguing that Israel would no longer be the kind of democracy they had signed up to serve.

The ultranationalists in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition were bent on entrenching permanent Israeli control over the occupied West Bank. And ultra-Orthodox parties had demanded a law exempting Torah students from obligatory military service, a move that critics said would spell the end of the so-called people’s army.

At a political low point after the attack, and surrounded by largely inexperienced coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu needed to build domestic legitimacy fast.

“Netanyahu understood that he had lost the trust of the people and needed to bring in the centrists,” said Ehud Ya’ari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A protest against Mr. Netanyahu last month in Jerusalem.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Mr. Gantz offered to bring in his National Unity alliance and form a broader emergency government on the condition that Mr. Netanyahu would agree to form a small, competent war cabinet.

An official in the prime minister’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal affairs, said “reality dictated” that they unite as the public had. “Churchill had war cabinets,” he added.

Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, famously ran the 1973 war through her informal “kitchen cabinet.” State commissions of inquiry held after the 1973 war and the Second Lebanon War of 2006 recommended the establishment of small war cabinets during wartime.

The country’s security chiefs often join the forum’s discussions. Mr. Eisenkot and Mr. Dermer are themselves technically nonvoting observer members of the cabinet, which meets several times a week. People familiar with its workings say there are differences of opinion, but the members rarely bring things to a vote. Instead, they hash out the issues until they reach a consensus. In cases where broader security cabinet approval is required by law, it has acted as a rubber stamp.

Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is in charge of international relations and is in constant touch with Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock


In addition to bringing the backing of their parties, the cabinet’s members also bring essential military and diplomatic experience.

Mr. Gallant’s military past included responsibility for the Gaza front. Mr. Eisenkot was an architect of a 2006 military doctrine that argued for the use of disproportionate force in asymmetric warfare. Mr. Dermer, who is in charge of international relations, is in regular contact with Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration’s national security adviser, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

The leaders have differed on strategy toward Lebanon, the timing of the ground invasion and last month’s temporary cease-fire that allowed for a deal to exchange more than 100 hostages for Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Mr. Gantz has also openly criticized Mr. Netanyahu for refusing to reallocate to the war effort funds previously promised to his far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

And there are the long-simmering resentments among the members. Mr. Netanyahu tried to fire Mr. Gallant in March after the defense minister publicly warned that the planned judicial overhaul could have catastrophic consequences for national security. Ultimately, Mr. Netanyahu was forced to reinstate him.

Mr. Gantz has been a bitter political rival of Mr. Netanyahu since the prime minister reneged on a power-sharing agreement with him in 2020. And over a decade ago, Mr. Netanyahu withdrew Mr. Gallant’s appointment as chief of staff of the military amid allegations that he had violated building codes at his family estate. Mr. Gantz got the job instead and was succeeded by Mr. Eisenkot.

Mr. Gantz, a war cabinet member, is a longtime political rival of Mr. Netanyahu.Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

The war cabinet’s functionality “doesn’t mean the personal accounts are deleted; they are just suspended,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. “There’s no harmony there,” he added, “just an understanding of the gravity of the moment.”

It is in many ways in Mr. Netanyahu’s interest, analysts said, to keep Israel in a state of war. The crisis allows him to stave off an inquiry into the failures of Oct. 7 and the political reckoning that will most likely follow.

For now, the war cabinet has not articulated at what point it will consider Hamas to be defeated and dismantled, nor has it delivered a clear vision for who will govern Gaza after the war. Its members have stuck to general formulations, saying that Israel will have to remain in charge of security for the foreseeable future but does not want to administer daily life in the enclave.

As the war in Gaza enters its third month, pressure is growing on Israel’s leaders to show results — internally, by crushing Hamas and freeing the remaining Israeli hostages; and externally, by stemming the spiraling civilian death toll and relieving a deepening humanitarian crisis. Those external pressures intensified this week when President Biden, Israel’s closest ally, called the military’s bombing campaign “indiscriminate” and disagreed with Mr. Netanyahu on the postwar role the Western-backed Palestinian Authority might play in Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu has collided head on with the Biden administration about the so-called day after. The prime minister rebuffed an American plan for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank, to control Gaza after the war because, he said, the Palestinian Authority teaches its children to hate Israel, refused to denounce the Oct. 7 attack and supports terrorism.

Mr. Gantz and Mr. Eisenkot have kept quiet on the matter.

Mr. Netanyahu has entrusted Mr. Dermer and Tzachi Hanegbi, a loyal national security adviser, with planning Gaza’s future.

“There are two completely different world views” within the war cabinet over handling the aftermath, said Ms. Livni, noting that Mr. Gantz and his allies have not ruled out the American vision of a peace process that leads to some version of a Palestinian state.

At some point, because of the war, or because of disagreements over Gaza’s fate, the war cabinet is likely to crack. And then Israel will be back at war with itself.

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