Israel's wartime government struggles 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 will leave the government if he does not soon develop a plan for the future of the war in Gaza.

While Gantz's departure would not overthrow the country's emergency wartime government, the move would further strain a fragile coalition that has provided Netanyahu's far-right government with a boost of international legitimacy, and would make the prime minister once again more dependent on the government. its intransigent partners.

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

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

Gantz's ultimatum was the latest sign of pressure on Netanyahu to develop a post-war plan. The prime minister is increasingly forced – externally by Israel's closest ally, the United States, and within his own War Cabinet – to clarify a strategy for Gaza. Just a few days earlier, Yoav Gallant, Israel's defense minister, had said that the government was charting “a dangerous path” and had asked Netanyahu to immediately commit not to establish an Israeli military government in Gaza.

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

Gantz, he added, “chose to issue ultimatums for the prime minister, rather than for Hamas.”

Domestic frustration is also growing over Netanyahu's failure to secure the freedom of the hostages remaining in Gaza. Israeli forces on Saturday recovered the body of an Israeli man detained in Gaza since October 7, the fourth body recovered in two days, raising fears over the fate of some 128 prisoners still in the enclave.

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

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

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

Negotiations on a ceasefire that would release a number of hostages have stalled, with Israel and Hamas at odds over the conditions for a truce. Israeli troops were also forced to return to some areas of northern Gaza to fight the renewed Hamas insurgency. And Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the politically powerful Lebanese armed group, continue to bomb each other across the border, leaving tens of thousands of displaced Israelis with little idea of ​​when they might return home.

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

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

The United States has sought to give the Palestinian Authority, the group that controls much of the occupied West Bank, the power to govern Gaza. But Netanyahu and his allies have rejected this idea, proposing that Palestinians not affiliated with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority take over.

The Biden administration has also called for the creation of a Palestinian state – of which Gaza would be an integral part – a proposal that lost support in Israel after the Hamas-led terrorist attack on October 7.

On Saturday, Gantz vowed not to “allow any party, friend or foe, to impose a Palestinian state on us,” echoing Netanyahu's rhetoric that opposes Palestinian sovereignty.

Until a permanent solution is found, Gantz said, Gaza should be temporarily run by an “American-European-Arab-Palestinian” civilian administration, with Israeli security oversight. Gantz joined Netanyahu in rejecting any role for the internationally supported Palestinian Authority

The discovery of dead hostages and the resumption of Hamas fighting in recent days have highlighted the failures of Netanyahu's current strategy.

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

According to Israeli authorities, around 124 of the more than 250 people taken hostage on October 7 are still in Gaza. Four other prisoners have been held there for years, 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 slowed. Truckloads of humanitarian aid began reaching the shores of Gaza this week via a temporary dock built by the United States.

But American officials and aid groups have stressed that the new sea corridor cannot replace land border crossings, the most efficient way to deliver supplies to civilians in the territory. Only 310 humanitarian trucks have entered Gaza through these crossings in the 10 days since Israel began its military incursion into the southern city of Rafah, United Nations officials said on Friday.

This is a figure much lower than the over 500 per day that humanitarian organizations consider necessary to maintain even minimally acceptable living conditions.

Aid workers have repeatedly warned that famine looms due to acute shortages of basic goods among civilians, many of whom have been displaced multiple times. According to UNRWA, the main UN agency for Palestinians, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been forced to flee Rafah since Israel began a military offensive on May 6.

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

Rafah became home to more than a million Palestinians who fled their homes in other parts of Gaza in search of a modicum of safety, even as the Israeli army continued to carry out airstrikes on the city. It was one of the last places not to be invaded by Israeli soldiers.

Now many Palestinians are seeking refuge in places such as the central town of Deir al Balah and Al-Mawasi, a coastal area west of Khan Younis. Both are overcrowded and face terrible conditions, the United Nations 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 devastated by Israeli bombing. They hoped they wouldn't be forced to flee again.

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

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

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

King Abdulrahim, Bilal Shbair AND Victoria Kim contributed to the reporting.

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