Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is greeted by Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 13, 2023. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

JERUSALEM — Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has been keeping busy, visiting troops in the field and directing Israel’s multi-front war from his headquarters at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. 

But he’s also keeping himself in the spotlight, threading a needle between his day-to-day responsibilities of leading the conflict and slowly ramping up his public disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort that could lead Gallant to becoming a central political figure should the war cabinet collapse. 

Gallant has become increasingly vocal in recent months about the lack of clear planning for what happens when Hamas is defeated — whatever that actually means — in Gaza. He first floated the need for a strategy back in early January, but he raised eyebrows with his more direct comments, and indirect criticism of Netanyahu, on May 15. 

“The meaning of indecision, is choosing one of the negative options — it would erode our military achievements, lessen the pressure on Hamas, and sabotage the chances of achieving a framework for the release of hostages,” Gallant said. “Already in October, on the night of our military maneuver [into Gaza],  the defense establishment presented its war plan to the Cabinet, stating that it will be necessary to destroy Hamas battalions, while simultaneously working to establish a local, non-hostile Palestinian governing alternative.”

The call for a plan is seen as a potential hot potato in Israel’s politics, in a war in which the Prime Minister has not only postponed decisions but also sought to prevent a commission of inquiry about October 7. 

Just days later, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Israel, with the background of Netanyahu’s statement in early May that “Even if Israel is forced to stand alone, we will stand alone.” Notably, the White House readout of the visit said that “Minister Gallant and General Halevi briefed Mr. Sullivan on new alternative approaches to defeating Hamas in Rafah to address the concerns that have been expressed by the U.S. side through the Strategic Consultative Group process,” concerns which have included whether Israel actually has a long-term plan in place for Gaza. 

It’s not the first time that Gallant has broken publicly with Bibi. At the height of Netanyahu’s attempts to change judicial laws, Gallant spoke out against the move, which was highly unpopular with members of the military. Bibi fired Gallant, setting off a series of public protests against Netanyahu, eventually leading the Israeli PM to back off and keep Gallant in place. 

But what is not clear what Gallant’s long-term plan is, especially as other politicians have made more pointed criticisms of Bibi in the ensuing weeks. 

“Politically I don’t understand what he is doing, if he is trying to work with War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz on a united front to bring Bibi [Netanyahu] down or contain his [Netanyahu’s] worst impulses,” said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. 

Gantz, a former Chief of Staff, opposition political leader and now a member of the War Cabinet, also has spoken out about the need for a plan, vowing to quit the cabinet if Netanyahu kicks the can down the road further. 

Unlike Gantz, Gallant is a member of Bibi’s Likud party. Freilich wonders whether Gallant would actually vote against the coalition government, pointing out that the government would still have enough votes in the 120-member Knesset. “I think he is deeply concerned about the deterioration of relations with the US and he is trying to minimize that. In that sense he is trying to be a responsible Defense Minister,” Freilich notes.

Yaakov Katz, author of the book Shadow Strike and a Fellow at JPPI, says that Gallant has simply made open what many experts have identified as a key issue: the government’s refusal to outline and articulate a strategy. 

“The reason that’s important is because when you don’t have that, it seems the whole operation is just [about] destruction. As we know, the military means and force is not the solution, it is the means to creating a solution,” he said. 

Katz argues that the reason Netanyahu hasn’t made a decision is internal politics and “a fear by Netanyahu that it would bring down his coalition to contemplate a new Palestinian force in Gaza, so he refuses to articulate what that plan looks like. That makes it hard for the military to prosecute the war. That’s the problem.”

What Comes Next For The War Cabinet

With Gallant and then Gantz’s public criticisms, the continued pressure from families of hostages, as well as open disagreements between Bibi and the White House, it felt throughout most of May as if Israel was slouching towards a coalition and cabinet crisis, one that might have shattered Bibi’s control of the government. But a number of factors have now put the crisis on the back burner, if only temporarily. 

The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court both released scathing decisions in the third week of May. Norway, Ireland and Spain recognized Palestine as a country, adding to Israel’s isolation on this issue as well. As if that wasn’t enough, Hezbollah continued to pound Israel with dozens of rocket, drone and missile attacks and Hamas launched its first long range rocket attack on Tel Aviv in four months on May 27. 

Those moves have allowed Bibi to play the “us against the world” card, which he hopes will reduce domestic political protests. If external voices criticizing Israel only strengthens Netanyahu, he will likely continue to play that card.

Gallant, meanwhile, has returned to the field to observe the war. He went along the coast of Gaza with the Israeli navy on May 23, a day before a storm brought heavy seas to the coast. On May 26 he went to Rafah to speak to troops, and spoke with the commander of the 162nd IDF division, which is running operations in Gaza. 

“Our goals in Gaza are emphasized here in Rafah — to destroy Hamas, return the hostages, and maintain freedom of operation,” he said. He reassured the troops that “Our job is to take it [your achievements] and take it to the next level in Gaza and across the Middle East. These issues are connected,” a hint at a broader strategy, but without directly using the opportunity to push Bibi on the need for a day-after plan.

Once again, Gallant is trying to thread a needle between saying too much and getting his point across. In the almost eight months Israel has been at war, his profile inside the country has only risen. What comes next, only time will tell.