Rifts in the Israeli government emerged publicly on Friday as members of the cabinet argued over plans for the post-war future of Gaza and how to handle investigations into the security failings around Hamas’ October 7 attacks.
The public sniping followed what one source described as a “fight” at a meeting of the the security cabinet on Thursday. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said there had been a “stormy discussion,” while former Defense Minister Benny Gantz said a “politically motivated attack” had been launched.
The developments illustrate the fault lines emerging in the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after three months of war with Hamas. If the government collapses, Israel would likely face new elections that Netanyahu is widely expected to lose.
Thursday’s security cabinet split was over how to handle investigations into the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, including the Israeli military’s failure to foresee it, as well as how to prosecute the war from now on.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant outlined plans for the next phase of the war in Gaza, and provided details of what might follow that, in a three-page document entitled the “Day After.”
He described a “new combat approach” with a sustained focus on targeting Hamas leaders in southern parts of the strip. In northern Gaza, he said the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) campaign would encompass “raids, the destruction of terror tunnels, aerial and ground activities, and special operations.”
After the war, the Israeli military would maintain “operational freedom of action in the Gaza Strip” and Israel would continue to “carry out the inspection of goods entering” the territory.
Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party, said that once the goals of the war have been achieved there would be “no Israeli civilian presence in the Gaza Strip,” appearing to rule out the re-establishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza that Israel unilaterally removed in 2005.
The defense minister also unveiled the concept of a US-led multinational task force charged with “the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.”
But the minister’s plan provided scant detail on the future governance of the enclave, merely saying that the Palestinian “entity controlling the territory” would “build on the capabilities” of “local non-hostile actors” already present in Gaza.
The plan prompted a fiery discussion, according to a source. After a break in the meeting, the source said, Transportation Minister Miri Regev went on the attack. “After the break Miri Regev came back and launched this fight that was leaked,” said the official, who asked not to be named discussing internal political discussions.
Gantz, who joined the government from opposition after October 7, said: “What happened yesterday was a politically motivated attack in the middle of a war. I participated in many cabinet meetings – such conduct has never occurred and must not occur.”
He did not say who had launched the attack, but he criticized Netanyahu. “The cabinet should have discussed strategic processes that will affect the continuation of the campaign and our security in the future. It did not happen, and the prime minister is responsible for that,” Gantz said, urging Netanyahu to choose between unity and security on the one hand and politics on the other.
Netanyahu’s Likud party then lashed out at Gantz. “During a war, when the people are united, Gantz is expected to act responsibly and stop looking for excuses to break his promise to remain in the unity government until the end of the war,” it said in a statement.
Gantz is widely considered a likely successor to Netanyahu when an election is called.
Tensions spill out in public
Gallant’s plan was criticized Friday by Smotrich, who along with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has advocated for resettling Gazans outside the enclave. Their comments have drawn condemnation from the United States, United Nations officials and several Arab states.
Smotrich wrote on Facebook that “‘The Day After’ is a rerun of ‘The Day Before’ on October 7,” referring to the date of the Hamas terror attack in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage.
“The solution in Gaza requires thinking outside the box and changing the concept by encouraging voluntary migration and full security control including the renewal of settlement,” Smotrich added.
Israel’s deadly bombardment and besiegement of Gaza has turned swathes of the Palestinian enclave into a wasteland, leaving more than 2.2 million people at risk of severe dehydration, starvation and disease. At least 1.93 million Palestinians have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
Regional actors in the Middle East have repeatedly likened the mass movement of Palestinians in Gaza to the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, the Arabic term for the expulsion or flight of Palestinians from their towns during the founding of Israel in 1948.
Since October 7, Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed at least 22,600 people, 70% of whom are women and children, the Haman-run health ministry said on Friday.
Smotrich previously said the removal of Gazans from the strip could pave the way for Israelis to “make the desert bloom” while Ben Gvir had suggested that the current war represented an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza.”
Smotrich, a Jewish nationalist, has denied the existence of a Palestinian people or nationhood. Ben Gvir was previously convicted of inciting racism against Arabs and supporting a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller roundly condemned the “inflammatory and irresponsible” comments made by Smotrich and Ben Gvir, saying the US had been “told repeatedly and consistently” by Israel “that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government.
Responding to the US statement, Ben Gvir on Tuesday called the US a “good friend” but said the “emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza” would allow Israeli settlers to return and “live in security.”
Smotrich also responded to the US State Department’s rebuke, posting on X: “More than 70% of the Israeli public today supports a humanitarian solution of encouraging the voluntary immigration of Gaza Arabs and their absorption in other countries.”
Other foreign officials, from Europe to Saudi Arabia, have fiercely condemned the rhetoric pushed by Israeli far-right cabinet ministers, while a UN official warned the forced displacement of Palestinians outside Gaza “is an act of genocide.”
“Forcible transfer of Gazan population is an act of genocide especially given the high number of children,” Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, posted on X on Friday.
On Thursday, the UN’s human rights chief Volker Turk said he was “very disturbed by high-level Israeli officials’ statements on plans to transfer civilians from Gaza to third countries.”
The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday, “Forced displacements are strictly prohibited as a grave violation of IHL (International Humanitarian Law) & words matter.”
US officials have previously said they ultimately envision both Gaza and the occupied West Bank being ruled by a unified government led by a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority. At present, the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, having lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007.
An Arab delegation comprising officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority emphasized in a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in December that Arab states will need assurances that there is a path toward a Palestinian state if they are going are to play a role in the reconstruction of Gaza.