Heated debate in Israel and abroad over the increase in the budget for settlements in the occupied West Bank is a reminder that wartime national unity will not outlast a deep ideological divide.
PARIS — During wartime, the most divisive issues are generally avoided. Not in Israel though, where national unity does not prevent ideological divisions from breaking through into the public space.
Benny Gantz, a longtime Benjamin Netanyahu nemesis, who became a member of the War Cabinet after October 7, criticized the government's draft budget on Monday. It may sound trivial, but his target was the increased spending allocated for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Gantz felt that all resources should go towards the war effort or supporting the suffering economy — not the settlers.
The affair did not go unnoticed internationally. Josep Borrell, the European High Representative for Foreign Policy, said that he was "appalled" by this spending on settlers in the middle of this war.
"This is not self-defense and will not make Israel safer," the European official commented. "The settlements are grave IHL breach, and they are Israel’s greatest security liability.”
Israel's political divide
We shouldn't forget the nature of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition: the Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotricht, belongs to a far-right party in favor of mass settlement construction. Despite the war, he is still pursuing his ideological agenda.
Last week, there was a lively debate within the government about the current truce, with the far right firmly opposed. In the end, Smotricht's party voted in favor of the ceasefire, but the other far-right formation, that of Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, did not.
This divide remains strong despite the dramatic situation since October 7.
The far right does not want Israel to be pushed down the path of concessions on the question of the Palestinian territories. Yet U.S. President Joe Biden repeats every other day that he is in favor of a "two-state" solution, and calls for a political solution.
The reckoning will no doubt be settled at the end of the military phase.
Gantz and the Finance Minister finally agreed to a compromise late Monday, with a smaller than expected increase in funding for the settlements. But this mini-crisis is revealing.
A Benny Gantz campaign billboard in 2022
Credit Image: © Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via ZUMA
The country's post-war era
During the war, political life has continued in Israel. Demonstrations were held to demand the immediate departure of Netanyahu, deemed responsible for the security failure of October 7.
The reckoning will no doubt be settled at the end of the military phase, by means of a commission of inquiry, like in similar situations in the past, after the 1973 war, or the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Benny Gantz is currently the favorite to succeed Netanyahu if, as many Israelis predict, he does not survive this crisis politically. It would be up to him to lead the country into the post-war era. And the settlement issue is a major obstacle on the road to a solution. Thus the brief budget controversy Monday should not be underestimated: It heralds even more heated debates to come.