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Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz to meet US leaders

Opposition politician’s visit hints at cracks in Israeli government and growing frustration in Washington over Gaza war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets Israel's former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) meets Israel’s former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC [File: Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via AFP]

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz is set to meet senior Biden administration officials on a visit to the United States.

The expected meetings starting on Monday are reported to have enraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and appear to signal a widening split in Tel Aviv as the war in Gaza enters its fifth month.

Gantz, a former army chief and defence minister, will be received by Vice President Kamala Harris, which is being viewed as a sign of the White House’s growing frustration with Netanyahu. Gantz will also hold talks with the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, according to his centrist National Unity party.

On Tuesday, Gantz will meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has led calls for Netanyahu to allow the passage of more aid to ease the humanitarian suffering in Gaza, where famine now looms, according to the United Nations.

Israel and the US also disagree on how governance for the enclave will look like post-war.

Strengthened ties

Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu, who was apparently unaware of the trip until Gantz called him on Friday, has “made it clear to Minister Gantz that the State of Israel only has one prime minister”.

The Israeli embassy in Washington, DC is reported to have been ordered not to facilitate the “unauthorised” trip.

An Israeli official, speaking anonymously to The Associated Press news agency, said the visit is planned to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war on Gaza, and push for Hamas to release all Israeli captives.

Reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Willem Marx said a source close to Gantz revealed that the politician had not instigated the visit, nor was it entirely at the invitation of US officials.

“Clearly there are those in the US who would like to open up a different line of communication with someone in the heart of the Israeli government’s decision-making process,” Marx said.

“Gantz as a member of the war cabinet feels it incumbent on him to try and open that line … given the very publicly difficult relation between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu … in the past months.”

US priorities in the region have increasingly been hindered by Netanyahu’s majority ultranationalist cabinet. Gantz’s party, which joined the government in October as the war cabinet was established, presents a counterweight that appears more closely aligned to Washington’s position, although it continues to support Israel with military supplies.

The US has been busy throughout, trying to push a truce, and Israel and Hamas are currently negotiating a possible new deal for a pause in fighting and the release of captives. It has also urged Netanyahu to avert a planned assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah and to open the way for increased food and medical supplies.

In what is seen as a rare public rebuke for its ally, Harris called in a statement on Sunday for an “immediate” pause in the fighting in Gaza and repeated the call for more aid to be allowed into the besieged enclave.

On Saturday, the US airdropped aid into Gaza, shortly after Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians rushing to grab food from an Israel-organised convoy, killing at least 115.

The airdrops bypassed an aid delivery system hobbled by Israeli restrictions, logistical issues and fighting in Gaza, but aid officials say the method is far less effective than deliveries by truck.

Polling problems

Netanyahu’s popularity has dropped markedly since the war broke out, with many in the country holding him responsible for failing to prevent Hamas’s October 7 attack, which killed 1,139 people, and saw about 250 others taken captive.

Israelis accuse his extreme right-wing government of a slow response during the attacks and say it left victims largely without support in the aftermath.

Although most Israelis back the war, thousands marched late on Saturday to call for early elections, according to Israeli media.

a small toddler stands in front of a destroyed building covered in grey dust
A Palestinian child walks amid the rubble of a house destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City on March 3, 2024 [AFP]

An opinion poll conducted by Israeli Channel 13 showed that 53 percent of Israelis believe that political survival is what is pushing Netanyahu to prolong the war in Gaza.

If elections were held today, the poll showed, Gantz’s National Unity party would clinch 39 seats, compared with 17 for Netanyahu’s Likud party. Opposition Yesh Atid party of Yair Lapid, who has called on Netanyahu to resign, would get 12 seats.

Disagreements with the US, Israel’s biggest ally, have not helped Netanyahu’s standing.

While the White House says it wants to see progress on Palestinian statehood and a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza, Netanyahu and the hardliners in his government oppose that vision.

Meanwhile, Gantz has remained vague about his views on a Palestinian state. Officials from his party have also questioned Netanyahu’s handling of the war and the strategy for freeing the captives.

If the politician’s visit to the US yields progress on the captive talks, it could boost his support base at home, and likely, on the international front.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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