AP/ PTI

Israel’s wartime Cabinet is rattled by a dispute between Netanyahu and his top political rival

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Tel Aviv (Israel): A top Israeli Cabinet minister headed to Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials, sparking a rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to an Israeli official, in a sign of widening cracks in Israel’s wartime government nearly five months into its war with Hamas.

The trip by Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival who joined Netanyahu’s hard-line government in the early days of the war following Hamas’ October 7 attack on southern Israel, comes amid deep disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over how to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and create a post-war vision for the enclave.

The US was prompted to airdrop aid into Gaza on Saturday after dozens of Palestinians rushing to grab food from trucks were killed last week. The airdrops circumvent what’s been a prohibitive aid delivery system, which has been hobbled by Israeli restrictions, logistical issues within Gaza as well as the fighting inside the tiny enclave. Aid officials say the airdrops are far less effective than the aid sent via trucks.

US priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by Netanyahu’s hard-line Cabinet, where ultranationalists dominate. Gantz’s more moderate party at times acts as a counterweight to Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

An official from Netanyahu’s Likud party said Gantz’s visit was without authorisation from the Israeli leader. The official said Netanyahu had a “tough talk” with Gantz about the trip and told him the country has “just one prime minister”.

An Israeli official said Gantz had informed Netanyahu of his intention to travel to the US and to coordinate messaging with him. The official said the visit is meant to strengthen ties with Washington, to bolster support for Israel’s ground campaign and to push for the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Gantz is set to meet with US Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to his National Unity party.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to discuss the dispute with the media.

Netanyahu has tanked in popularity since the war broke out, according to most opinion polls, with many Israelis holding him responsible for Hamas’ cross-border raid that left 1,200 people, mostly civilians, dead and roughly 250 people, including women, children and older adults, abducted and taken into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities.

The subsequent fighting has killed at least 30,410 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters.

Around 80 per cent of the population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, and UN agencies say hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

Critics say Netanyahu’s decision-making has been tainted by political considerations, a charge he denies. The criticism is particularly focused on plans for postwar Gaza. Netanyahu has released a proposal that would see Israel maintain open-ended security control over the territory with local Palestinians running civilian affairs.

The US wants to see progress on the creation of a Palestinian state, envisioning a revamped Palestinian leadership running Gaza with an eye toward eventual statehood.

That vision is opposed by Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government. Another top Cabinet official from Gantz’s party has questioned the handling of the war and the country’s strategy for freeing the hostages.

Netanyahu’s government, Israel’s most conservative and religious ever, has also been rattled by a court-ordered deadline for a new bill to broaden military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are exempted to pursue religious studies. The issue has come up as hundreds of Israeli soldiers have been killed since October 7 and the military is looking to fill its ranks as the war drags on.

Gantz, who polls show would earn enough support to become prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood.

A visit to the US, if met with progress on the hostage front, could further boost Gantz’s support. Israel has essentially endorsed a framework of a proposed Gaza  cease-fire and hostage release deal, and it is now up to Hamas to agree to it, a senior US official said on Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.

Israelis, deeply traumatised by Hamas’ attack, have broadly backed the war effort as an act of self-defence, even as global opposition to the fighting has increased.

But a growing number are expressing their dismay with Netanyahu. Some 10,000 people protested late Saturday to call for early elections, according to Israeli media. Such protests have grown in recent weeks, but remain much smaller than last year’s demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

If the political rifts grow and Gantz quits the government, the floodgates will open to broader protests by a public that was already unhappy with the government when Hamas struck, said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“There is a lot of anger,” he said, listing grievances that were building well before October 7. “The moment you have that anger and a coalition that is disconnected from the people, there will be fireworks.”

Netanyahu’s government won’t collapse if Gantz exits, but it could lose legitimacy in the eyes of much of the public.

Talks aimed at brokering a Gaza cease-fire restarted Sunday in Egypt. International mediators hope to broker a deal that would pause the fighting and free some of the remaining hostages before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins around March 10.

In the meantime, fighting raged on in Gaza with Israeli strikes late Saturday killing more than 30 people, including women and children, according to local health officials.

At least 14 were killed in a strike on a home in the southernmost city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, according to Dr. Marwan al-Hams, director of the hospital where the bodies were taken. He said the dead, including six children and four women, were all from the same family. Relatives said another nine people were missing under the rubble.

Israeli airstrikes also hit two homes in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense, residential area in northern Gaza, killing 17 people, according to the Civil Defence.

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