TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to form a national unity government that includes members of the opposition and former military leaders, a move aimed at reassuring a country still reeling from the deadly attack by Hamas militants that killed 1,200 Israelis.
Netanyahu agreed on Wednesday to form a government with Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party. Gantz, a former defense minister, served as the chief of staff in a Netanyahu-led government during the previous war between Israel and Hamas in 2014.
The decision to form a new government comes after fierce criticisms of Netanyahu following the weekend’s surprise attack by Hamas, an event that represented the worst failure of Israeli intelligence in decades.
It also seeks to establish some unity in the country after a period of polarization in Israeli society and politics.
Before the attack, Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary had sparked the largest protest movement in Israel’s history and divided Israelis. Some Israeli security officials had warned that Israel’s enemies might seek to take advantage of the turmoil within Israel to strike.
“The most important action [now] is to establish the unity of the nation,” Netanyahu said during a televised speech on Tuesday. “The division within us is over. We are all united. And when we are united—we win,” he said.
Negotiations with the opposition began shortly after Hamas, which the U.S. and other countries designate as a terrorist group, attacked southern Israel, and the calls for a unity government grew from political parties across the spectrum and from the general public. Members of the government were heckled in public appearances.
Now, with the arrival of Gantz, as well as Gadi Eizenkot, another former military chief in Gantz’s party, analysts say the public and military will have more confidence in the leadership’s decisions.
“Expertise and legitimacy, these are the two assets this government will now have to fight this war,” said Professor Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Gantz and Netanyahu agreed on the formation of a small war cabinet. It also includes Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who is from Netanyahu’s Likud party and is a former high-ranking military official. The war cabinet will also have two observers: former chief of staff Eizenkot, and Ron Dermer, a longtime and trusted ally of Netanyahu who is currently strategic-affairs minister. Observers can sit in on discussions but can’t vote, a distinction that would have little meaning given the cabinet’s small size, Rahat said.
Benny Gantz served as the chief of staff in a Netanyahu-led government during the previous war between Israel and Hamas. PHOTO: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS
The new cabinet was convened almost immediately after the agreement was struck, with Gantz and Eizenkot joining it Wednesday night amid fears of an aerial attack from Lebanon. The Israeli military later said that no attack had taken place.
Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition, will have a place reserved for him in the war cabinet if he wants to join, the joint statement from Netanyahu and Gallant said.
Lapid served a short stint as prime minister last year, having previously been foreign minister. His inclusion in the cabinet could bolster Israel’s foreign diplomacy during the war, said Rahat, the political analyst.
“Lapid has very good friends in the world. Netanyahu is strong with the right wing, Lapid is good with center and center-left,” Rahat said.
The two sides also agreed the cabinet would only deal with legislation and government decisions related to the conflict for as long as it continues.
This is the second time that Gantz and Netanyahu are setting aside their political differences to form a unity government during a national emergency.
After three consecutive elections ended in a stalemate between 2019 and 2020, Gantz agreed to join Netanyahu in government to handle the Covid-19 crisis.
That government broke up in less than a year. Gantz was supposed to rotate into the prime minister’s office after two years, and blamed Netanyahu for bringing his government down by refusing to pass a budget, which automatically dissolved parliament and triggered elections.
Gantz responded to the announcement of a deal with a phrase he used in electoral campaigns: “Israel before everything else,” he wrote on social media.
Netanyahu has yet to publicly comment on the formation of a unity government since the deal was announced.
Write to Dov Lieber at email@example.com