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Cracks widen in Netanyahu’s government as top political rival arrives in US

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has plummeted (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked a top cabinet minister arriving in Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, according to an Israeli official, signalling widening cracks within the country’s leadership nearly five months into its war with Hamas.

The trip by Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival who joined Mr Netanyahu’s hardline government in the early days of the war after Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, comes amid deep disagreements between Mr Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden over how to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and create a post-war vision for the enclave.

The US was prompted to airdrop aid into Gaza on Saturday after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from trucks were killed last week.

The airdrops circumvented what has been a prohibitive aid delivery system, which has faced Israeli restrictions, logistical issues within Gaza as well as the ongoing fighting inside the enclave.

But aid officials say the airdrops are far less effective than the aid sent in trucks.

US priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by Mr Netanyahu’s hardline cabinet, where ultra-nationalists dominate. Mr Gantz’s more moderate party at times acts as a counterweight to Mr Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

Aid drop
Humanitarian aid was airdropped into Gaza on Saturday (Mohammed Hajjar/AP)

An official from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said Mr Gantz’s visit comes without authorisation from the Israeli leader. The official said Mr Netanyahu had a “tough talk” with Mr Gantz about the trip and told him the country has “just one prime minister”.

An Israeli official said Mr Gantz had informed the PM of his intention to travel to the US and to co-ordinate messaging with him. The official said the visit is meant to strengthen ties with Washington, to bolster support for Israel’s ground campaign and to push for the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Mr Gantz will meet US vice-president Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to his National Unity party.

Mr Netanyahu has tanked in popularity since the war broke out, according to most opinion polls, with many Israelis holding him responsible for Hamas’s cross-border raid that left 1,200 people, mostly civilians, dead and roughly 250 people, including women, children and older adults, abducted and taken into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The subsequent fighting has killed at least 30,410 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters.

Injured Palestinians
Palestinians injured in an Israeli strike are treated in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City (Mahmoud Essa/AP)

About 80% of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

Critics say Mr Netanyahu’s decision-making has been tainted by political considerations – a charge he denies.

The criticism is particularly focused on plans for post-war Gaza. Mr Netanyahu has released a proposal that would see Israel maintain open-ended security control over the territory with local Palestinians running civilian affairs.

The US wants to see progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, envisioning a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza with an eye towards eventual statehood.

That vision is opposed by Mr Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government.

Mr Gantz, who polls show would earn enough support to become prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood.

A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost his support.

Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US official said on Saturday.

A protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government took place in Tel Aviv on Saturday (Leo Correa/AP)

Israelis, deeply traumatised by Hamas’s attack, have broadly backed the war effort as an act of self-defence, even as global opposition to the fighting has increased.

But a growing number are expressing their dismay with Mr Netanyahu. Some 10,000 people protested on Saturday to call for early elections. Such protests have grown in recent weeks, but remain much smaller than last year’s demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

If the political rifts grow and Mr Gantz quits the government, the floodgates will open to broader protests by a public that was already unhappy with the government when Hamas struck, said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“There is a lot of anger,” he said, listing grievances that were building well before October 7.

“The moment you have that anger and a coalition that is disconnected from the people, there will be fireworks.”

Mr Netanyahu’s government will not collapse if Mr Gantz exits, but it could lose legitimacy in the eyes of much of the public.

Talks aimed at brokering a Gaza ceasefire are under way in Egypt, but an Israeli government official said Israel did not send a delegation because Mr Netanyahu has not received an answer from Hamas on two questions. According to Israeli media, they are a list of live hostages and the number of Palestinian prisoners Hamas seeks in exchange for each hostage.

International mediators hope to broker a deal that will pause the fighting and free some of the remaining hostages before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins around March 10.

Meanwhile, fighting raged on in Gaza, with Israeli strikes late on Saturday killing more than 30 people, including women and children, according to local health officials.

At least 14 were killed in a strike on a home in the southernmost city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, according to Dr Marwan al-Hams, director of the hospital where the bodies were taken. He said the dead, including six children and four women, were from the same family. Relatives said another nine people were under the rubble.

Israeli air strikes also hit two homes in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense, residential area in northern Gaza, killing 17 people, according to the civil defence.