What Israel’s Political Landscape Says About the Course of the War in Gaza

In Brief

What Israel’s Political Landscape Says About the Course of the War in Gaza

Amid the many uncertainties surrounding Israel’s endgame in Gaza, views among the public and leading officials indicate that Israel is preparing for a protracted war despite growing calls to accept a cease-fire.

More than seven months since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, 128 hostages remain in the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian population faces a dire humanitarian crisis. The war has continued amid a series of failed cease-fire negotiations, complicated by recent clashes in northern Gaza and Israel’s entry into Rafah. Examining Israel’s political structure and positions within the government provides insight on the direction of the war and Gaza’s future.

Israeli Politics at a Glance

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Israel’s political system contains three bodies: the executive branch, the judicial branch, and the legislative branch. The legislative branch, the Knesset, holds 120 seats. Knesset elections occur every four years at minimum; however, Israel’s Basic Law allows for early elections. Israeli citizens vote for political parties rather than individual Knesset members, and the parties win a number of seats proportionate to the percentage of votes they receive. The president consults with the parties then gives a mandate to form a government (historically a coalition of parties) to the individual considered most capable of doing so. This person does not have to be the leader of the winning party, and failing to form a coalition means the chance to form a government passes to someone else.

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Politics and Government

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli society has moved further right in recent decades, with 62 percent of the population identifying as on the political right in 2022. The current head of government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the leader of Likud—the largest right-wing party in the Knesset. Other prominent right-leaning and far-right parties include Shas, led by Aryeh Deri; Religious Zionists, led by Bezalel Smotrich; and Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir. To reach a majority after elections in 2022, Netanyahu made concessions to include far-right parties in his cabinet, making the current Israeli government the most conservative in the nation’s history.

Yesh Atid, the Knesset’s largest centrist party by seats, is led by former Prime Minister Yair Lapid. Another centrist party, Benny Gantz’s National Unity, also has seats in the Knesset. The legislature’s largest left-leaning party is Labor, where Merav Michaeli is the outgoing leader. Israel’s Arab population of 2.1 million predominantly votes for two Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am, whose leaders are Ayman Odeh and Mansour Abbas, respectively.

A bar chart of the seats per political party in Israel's parliament, showing the governing coalition led by the Likud party

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The Government and the War Against Hamas

After Hamas’s attack, National Unity joined the majority parties to form an emergency coalition, with Netanyahu elevating five of the party’s Knesset members, including Gantz, to the position of minister without portfolio. He then created a war cabinet within the emergency government, consisting of himself, Gantz, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. There are also three observers: Shas’s Deri, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and lawmaker Gadi Eisenkot.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the war cabinet sit in a conference room
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a meeting of Israel’s war cabinet. Israeli Government Press Office/Anadolu/Getty Images

Like Netanyahu, many Israelis support eliminating Hamas. However, there is disagreement within the war cabinet as to how feasible that objective is. Skeptics, such as Eisenkot, say that Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas will catalyze the next generation of militants. Proponents of eradicating Hamas’s fighting capabilities argue that the group will continue to terrorize Israelis unless the Israeli military undertakes a ground operation against Hamas remnants in Rafah, Gaza.

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Possible Elections and the Future of Gaza

Rafah—the southern city that became a refuge for 1.4 million Palestinians after the war began in October—remains a stronghold for four Hamas battalions. While around 65 percent of Israelis support entering Rafah, only 56 percent of the population believes the government is doing enough to release the hostages held by Hamas, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. As Netanyahu’s cabinet considers whether to undertake a full-scale invasion of Rafah, anti-government protests have gained momentum.

The protesters have had two demands: new elections and direct action from the government to ensure the release of hostages. They have support within the Knesset from Lapid and Gantz, the latter of whom has called for fresh elections in September. Lapid, meanwhile, has condemned the coalition government’s inability to release the remaining hostages. There has been a perceptible shift in recent protests, however, with many demonstrators signaling opposition to a ground operation in Rafah. These protesters argue that the government should prioritize releasing the hostages through a cease-fire agreement instead of focusing on a ground operation. It is still unclear if protesters’ demands can reach sufficient mass to influence the direction of the war.

An April survey by prominent local broadcaster Kan and the Israeli news station Channel 12 showed that 71 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign immediately or after the war ends. The media outlets projected that Gantz’s National Unity would win more Knesset seats than Likud if there were new elections. But Gantz has also advocated for entering Rafah, so if he were to become prime minister, it is unlikely that Israel’s approach to the conflict would change significantly. There is, however, a growing divide between Gantz and Netanyahu on whether the release of hostages or an operation in Rafah should be prioritized. In a post on X [in Hebrew], Gantz said the Rafah operation is essential in the long term, but currently, returning the hostages is of greater urgency.

Cease-Fire Prospects

In early May, indirect negotiations failed to produce a cease-fire deal exchanging Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, though talks are ongoing. Hamas has called for more permanent truce than the one offered by Israel and demanded the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. Israel says it will only agree to such terms after achieving its military objectives. As such, Israeli operations in Rafah show little sign of abating. On May 6, Israel released leaflets urging people in Rafah to evacuate, signaling an imminent ground operation. Simultaneously, Hamas announced it had agreed to the terms of a cease-fire, presumably knowing that Israel would reject the deal because its details differed greatly from the provisions discussed by the two sides. Israel proceeded with seizing control over the Gazan side of the Rafah-Egypt border crossing and has expanded its operation inside Rafah. But it is still unclear whether this marks the start of the full-scale ground offensive, especially given renewed fighting against Hamas in northern Gaza.

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