Israel’s security cabinet, often referred to as the “war cabinet,” has become increasingly divided over how to proceed with the military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, according to multiple reports over the past few days. Key disagreements have emerged regarding whether a ceasefire deal should be pursued to secure the release of two Israeli hostages held by Hamas, or whether military pressure should be continually applied to try and achieve an unconditional surrender.
Netanyahu and Ministers Disagree Over Hostage Deal
Tensions within the Israeli government went public on January 18th, when cabinet minister Michael Biton told an audience that he had prevented a planned strike on Hezbollah, just days after the initial Hamas attack. This seemed to contradict Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claims that Israel was not planning any operation against Lebanon.
The bigger disagreement however is over whether or not to pursue a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. Two Israeli citizens are currently being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, who are demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange.
- Minister Biton and Defence Minister Benny Gantz are reportedly open to a ceasefire deal to secure the release of the Israeli captives.
- Meanwhile, Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir are said to oppose a deal and want continued military action to defeat Hamas.
These divisions spilled into public view on January 19th:
- Former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot gave a speech arguing that the goal of militarily defeating Hamas was unrealistic.
- Minister Biton also told reporters that “only a deal can free” the Israeli hostages held in Gaza.
These comments seem to directly contradict Netanyahu, who said in a speech on January 15th that Israel would apply “force, only force” against Hamas.
Israel Faces Growing Pressure Over Captives as Casualties Mount
With over 250 Palestinians killed in the recent fighting, Israel is facing growing international criticism over the rising casualties. Neighbouring countries like Egypt are also pushing hard for a ceasefire.
Inside Israel, there is increasing public pressure on the government to reach a deal for the release of the Israeli captives. With Hamas threatening to release execution videos, time is running out to save them.
- Public opinion could quickly turn against the government if the hostages are killed without any effort to get them released.
- Losing the hostages could also damage morale and public support for the war.
At the same time, ceasing the Gaza campaign without any concessions from Hamas could revive criticism that Israel showed weakness. This tension has split the cabinet down the middle.
|Position on Hostage Deal
Israel Achieved Some Military Gains, But No Decisive Blow
While Israel has achieved some tactical successes in destroying Hamas tunnels and infrastructure, the Islamist group remains able to fire hundreds of rockets. Hamas itself does not seem any closer to military defeat.
There are also concerns that international criticism will grow if the civilian death toll in Gaza keeps mounting. With over 250 killed already, Israeli tactics have drawn condemnation from the UN and several countries.
According to a Times of Israel report, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi is worried that Israeli military gains will erode without an overall political strategy beyond the current phase of fighting.
Broader Regional Concerns Complicate Gaza Campaign
Israel also has to balance its Gaza campaign with broader regional security issues. There is an ongoing shadow war against Iranian proxies, risk of conflict on the northern border with Hezbollah, and keeping good relations with neighbouring countries.
Possibly with this bigger picture in mind, Defence Minister Gantz has seemingly advocated a calibrated approach in Gaza:
- Securing a long-term ceasefire deal in exchange for concrete Hamas concessions
- BUT avoiding outright Israeli re-occupation of Gaza which could turn into another quagmire
However, other ministers seem to favour pressing ahead militarily regardless of hostage or diplomatic consequences. This has created open political divisions within Netanyahu’s war cabinet itself that could shape the ultimate outcome of the conflict.
What Happens Next?
In the near term, domestic criticism of Netanyahu could rapidly accelerate if the Israeli hostages held by Hamas are killed. Israel may then face immense public pressure to agree to a ceasefire.
However, if a deal is somehow avoided in the short term, Netanyahu would likely continue military operations. Though with reservations from key cabinet members like Gantz, who warned that defeating Hamas outright is unrealistic.
In the long run, the political disunity within Netanyahu’s government could also hasten elections later this year. Former IDF chief Eisenkot has already called for elections within months to renew public trust. How Netanyahu manages this Gaza conflict will likely impact his own political fortunes going forward.
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