Israel’s Gantz Ups Ante With Netanyahu by Calling for Early Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, called for early elections, ramping up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing growing domestic protests against his government and an international backlash as the conflict in Gaza rages.

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Gantz, who has seen his popularity among Israeli voters surge as that of Netanyahu has dived, said polls should take place in September instead of as scheduled in 2026.

An early vote’s needed to “overcome the challenges ahead,” Gantz, who heads the National Unity party, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv late on Wednesday. “The Israeli public needs to know that we will soon ask for their trust.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the comments and said elections in the near future would “lead to paralysis, division” and “fatal damage to the chances of a hostage deal.”

Gantz argued that an agreement on an election date wouldn’t dent Israel’s war effort against Hamas in Gaza and would “prevent the rift in the nation.”

Even if Gantz pulls out of the war cabinet, Netanyahu’s government won’t necessarily fall because Likud and the several ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties in its coalition will maintain a narrow majority in the parliament.

Nonetheless, a Gantz exit would weaken Netanyahu’s position.

The conflict is creating deep political fractures within Israel as well as straining the country’s relations with key allies, including the US. Last month, Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the US Congress, tore into Netanyahu, saying the prime minister had “lost his way” and Israel needed to hold elections to decide its future.

Gaza, Iran Strikes Show Limits of Biden’s Influence on Israel

Israeli stocks slumped 1.8% by 12:10 p.m. in Tel Aviv, though they’re still up around 4% this year. Aside from local politics, markets have been unnerved by rising tensions between Israel and Iran, especially after a deadly missile strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus on Monday. The Islamic Republic blamed Israel and vowed to take revenge.

Navigational signals were scrambled over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area on Thursday as Israel braced for a potential Iranian attack on the country’s economic center.

Protests Against Netanyahu

Netanyahu, who was released from hospital on Tuesday following a hernia operation, has been the target of increasingly large protests over the past few days. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Jerusalem, blaming him for failing to secure the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. They also called for elections and several people were arrested.

Netanyahu, 74, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and heads the most right-wing coalition in its history. Gantz is a leading opposition figure but joined a five-man, emergency cabinet soon after Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting around 250.

Israel’s retaliatory air and ground offensive on Gaza has killed more than 32,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Gantz, 64, is a former head of the Israeli military and an ex-defense minister. His politics are more centrist than those of Netanyahu, though both men agree on the need to continue the war until Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US, is destroyed.

They also both say Israeli forces must be sent into the city of Rafah because several thousand Hamas fighters and leaders of the Iran-backed group are there. Israel’s allies are trying to convince it to scrap those plans, saying an offensive would be devastating for the more than one million civilians seeking refuge from the war.

The prime minister’s facing a showdown with some coalition members over a Supreme Court ruling last week that cut funding for ultra-Orthodox seminaries unless their students serve in the military. Netanyahu promised he’d prevent such a move when his government was formed in late 2022. Gantz and other opposition politicians back the court, arguing Israel can no longer afford to exempt any sections of the Jewish population from the draft.

Netanyahu has said he will find a way to keep both sides happy.

International pressure on Israel has grown significantly after its army struck a World Central Kitchen aid convoy on Monday, killing seven workers. US President Joe Biden said he was “outraged.”

Netanyahu’s office said that Biden and Netanyahu are scheduled to speak on Thursday.

The call between the two leaders comes as cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas stall again, according to Israeli officials.

Israel Says Large Gaps Remain With Hamas Over Gaza Cease-Fire

Large gaps remain between the sides over hostages, prisoners and the future of Gaza, with Hamas wanting to stay in power even after fighting ends.

A delegation of Israeli negotiators returned late Tuesday from two days of talks in Cairo and reported that Hamas is insisting on an immediate end to the war and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the officials said. Those conditions are unacceptable to Israel, they said.

(Updates with Israeli stocks falling.)

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