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Netanyahu dissolves influential War Cabinet after key partner bolted from government

From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz speak during a news conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel on Oct. 28, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP) From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz speak during a news conference in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel on Oct. 28, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
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TEL AVIV, Israel -

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved the influential War Cabinet that has overseen the fighting in Gaza, a government spokesperson said Monday, a move that comes days after a key member of the body bolted from the government over frustration with the Israeli leader's handling of the war.

The move was widely expected following the departure of Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief. Gantz's absence from the government increases Netanyahu's dependence on his ultra-nationalist allies, who oppose a cease-fire. That could pose an additional challenge to the already fragile negotiations to end the eight-month war in Gaza.

Government officials said Netanyahu would hold smaller forums for sensitive war issues, including with his Security Cabinet, which includes far-right governing partners who oppose cease-fire deals and have voiced support for reoccupying Gaza.

The War Cabinet was formed in the early days of the war, when Gantz, then an opposition party leader and Netanyahu rival, joined the coalition in a show of unity following the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas. He demanded that a small decision-making body steer the war, in a bid to sideline far-right members of Netanyahu's government. It was made up of three members -- Gantz, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The move to scrap the War Cabinet comes as Israel faces more pivotal decisions.

Israel and Hamas are weighing the latest proposal for a cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages taken by Hamas during its attack. Israeli troops are still bogged down in the Gaza Strip, fighting in the southern city of Rafah and against pockets of Hamas resurgence elsewhere, in addition to a dramatic escalation last week on the northern border with Lebanon.

After launching hundreds of rockets and drones toward Israel in some of the most intense barrages in the conflict, Hezbollah sharply reduced the number of projectiles fired toward northern Israel on Sunday and Monday.

The lull continued even after Israeli military officials said they killed a key operative in Hezbollah's rocket and missile department, Mohammed Ayoub, in a drone attack on Monday morning. The Israeli military said it tracked just two missiles fired Monday from Lebanon, and they did not enter Israeli territory. In the past 48 hours, there were just six launches, down from more than 200 on Thursday.

The lull could be due to the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha that began Sunday morning, as well as a visit from Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden. Hochstein is in Israel to discuss the volatile situation along the Lebanon-Israel border. He is scheduled to be in Beirut on Tuesday.

The U.S. has been trying to ease tensions along the frontier, and Hochstein made several trips to the region in recent months. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted, and daily exchanges of fire have been commonplace since then. In recent weeks, the exchanges have intensified, with fires breaking out on both sides of the border.

Netanyahu has played a balancing act throughout the war, weighing pressure from Israel's top ally, the U.S., and growing global opposition to the fighting, as well as from his government partners, chief among them Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Both have threatened to topple the government should Israel move ahead on a cease-fire deal. The latest proposal is part of the Biden administration's most concentrated push to help wind down the war. For now, progress on a deal appears to be stalled.

Critics say Netanyahu's wartime decision-making has been influenced by the ultra-nationalists in his government and by his desire to remain in power. Netanyahu denies the accusations and says he has the country's best interests in mind.

Gantz's departure, while not posing a direct threat to Netanyahu's rule, rocked Israeli politics at a sensitive time. The popular former military chief was seen as a statesman who boosted Israel's credibility with its international partners at a time when Israel finds itself at its most isolated. Gantz is now an opposition party leader in parliament.

Gantz's decision also prompted another resignation. Former army chief and fellow party member Gadi Eisenkot left the War Cabinet, where he had observer status.

Netanyahu's government is Israel's most religious and nationalist ever. In Israel's fractious parliamentary system, Netanyahu relies on a group of small parties to help keep his government afloat. Without the support of Gantz's party, Netanyahu is expected to be more beholden to far-right allies.

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