Gallant’s US trip strengthens potential challenge to Israel’s Netanyahu

Israeli defence minister’s visit comes a month before Netanyahu’s, and highlights his position as an alternative to the PM.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is received by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant took the opportunity of his visit to the United States to meet several top US officials [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has been on a mission in the past few days to shore up bipartisan support in the United States for Israel, in advance of what could potentially be all-out war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Gallant set the stage before he left for the US on Saturday, emphasising that ties between the two countries were “perhaps more important than ever”. After meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin and other top officials, Gallant’s message was consistent: the US and Israel are strong allies, and need to be on the same side in the face of the perceived threat from Iran and its supporters in the region.

But the Israeli and US government don’t quite see eye to eye on everything at the moment.

Many observers believe that one of the most important items on Gallant’s agenda was a frozen shipment of heavy-duty 2,000-pound (907kg) and 500-pound (227kg) bombs. The Biden administration paused the shipment in May, apparently in protest at the potential use of the bombs in Gaza, where the Israelis have killed more than 37,500 people, with continued US backing.

The frozen shipment has served as a riposte to critics of the US government who say that President Joe Biden continues to support what critics are calling “genocide” in Gaza. But, in reality, the US has refused to expand that pause to other military shipments. The administration even responded to comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he claimed that more arms shipments had been held back, by stressing that only one shipment has been stopped.

Whether Gallant has succeeded in getting the arms shipment sent to Israel is unclear. The officials Gallant met included pro-Israeli messages in their statements that followed. There was talk of the strong relationship between Israel and the US, the importance of Israel’s security, and the necessity of defeating the Palestinian group Hamas. But, notably, there was no overt attempt to row back any of the clearly signposted anti-Netanyahu messaging of the past few months – including persistent leaks that Biden was displeased with Netanyahu. The US president himself was caught on a hot mic saying that he had told Netanyahu they would have a “come to Jesus” meeting, a phrase used to refer to a moment of realisation before would change the Israeli prime minister’s thinking.

Gallant the alternative

The Biden administration’s attempts to personify its problems with Israel in Netanyahu means there appears to be space for a US-backed alternative. Many saw former war cabinet minister Benny Gantz as the most likely candidate, but his resignation and return to the opposition earlier this month, as well as a general decline in popularity among the Israeli public, may make him a less appealing figure to back.

That opens the door for Gallant, who, while a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has shown an independent streak in the past. Gallant called out the prime minister for a lack of a post-war plan for Gaza – echoing US criticisms – in May. And don’t forget that Gallant was fired by Netanyahu in March 2023 for the defence minister’s disagreement with him over the immensely controversial plans to overhaul the judiciary. It was only a mass public outcry that led to Gallant’s reinstatement.

With that in mind, an alternative reading of Gallant’s trip to the US is that it is also an attempt to undermine Netanyahu only a month before the prime minister’s own trip to Washington, where he will address a joint session of Congress. Gallant took the opportunity while in the US capital to make a pointed remark that differences between “family”, such as the US, be kept “in-house”, a not-so-subtle dig considering Netanyahu’s public criticism of the Biden administration.

To be clear, Gallant is no peacenik. He has been fully supportive of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and – along with Netanyahu – faces a potential International Criminal Court case if judges approve the chief prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant.

And one of the main items on his agenda in the US was drumming up support for a potential assault against Hezbollah, possibly involving a ground invasion.

US officials have signalled Washington won’t be as supportive of that plan. But the opportunity to make the case in the corridors of US power allows Gallant to come back to Israel in a stronger position to take on Netanyahu – if he ever decides to make a move.

Source: Al Jazeera