JERUSALEM — As Israel mulled a response to Iran’s massive drone and missile attack, the decision to strike with a carefully calibrated limited strike early Friday was made by just five men.

They are the sole members of Israel fractious “war cabinet,” a pop-up body of rival politicians charged with steering the country through its worst security crisis in half a century.

The tiny group, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wields supreme authority over the most consequential war matters: military operations in Gaza, hostage talks with Hamas and whether to open a second front against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Now, the quintet that meets without cellphones in “the Pit,” an ultra-secure section of the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, has apparently decided that a limited response is the best next step in the conflict with Iran, a burgeoning nuclear power committed to Israel’s destruction. The two countries have fought a shadow war for years.

“The five people in that room were faced with a decision that could be one of the three or four most crucial decisions since Israel’s founding in 1948,” said Nadav Shtrauchler, an Israeli political analyst.

And they did it with no love lost for each other. It is, by all accounts, a group riven by political animosities, rancor that was beginning to fracture the body before Iran’s attack last weekend served to paper the divisions over, at least for now.

When the latest crisis eases, tensions are likely to flare again, numerous Israeli observers said.

“They all hate each other, that’s for sure,” said an Israeli official familiar with the cabinet’s internal dynamics.

The core of the war cabinet, hastily formed in the chaos following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, includes Netanyahu and two other leaders he sees as future political threats.

The first is opposition leader Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who ran against Netanyahu in five recent elections and has now soared past the prime minister in polling.

The second is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a rival from within Netanyahu’s own Likud party, who last year publicly warned that the government’s attempts to remake the judiciary were splitting the military and harming its readiness.

Netanyahu fired Gallant in a dramatic, televised address, but was forced to back down in the face of massive street protests.

“In politics, everything is personal,” said Shtrauchler, who ran Netanyahu’s successful electoral campaign in 2019.

“These are not his best buddies; these are his rivals,” he said. “So far, that hasn’t kept them from coming to good decisions.”

The group of three is rounded out by two nonvoting “observers,” including Ron Dermer, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington and one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, and Gadi Eisenkot, another former IDF chief of staff who hails from Gantz’s center-right National Unity Party.

The unlikely cohort formed five days after Hamas fighters launched a surprise attack inside Israel, killing around 1,200 people and dragging 253 more back to Gaza as hostages. In less polarized times, the government’s existing security cabinet — an institution recognized by Israeli law would have managed the war in Gaza that Israel launched within hours.

But Hamas struck when the country’s trust in government and sense of unity had already been shattered by the stormy judicial reform controversy. Anger flared at Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving leader, for presiding over the stunning security failures of Oct. 7.

Senior leaders scrambled to regain public confidence, forging a power-sharing agreement with Eisenkot and Gantz. What emerged was a war cabinet with powers to direct military operations. The new authority sidelined the security cabinet, which had a reputation as an unwieldy, leak-prone committee of more than a dozen members, including the most extreme ministers of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition.

Military officials privately say they don’t like taking classified information before the security cabinet because it often appears in the media within hours. For the war cabinet, the generals and military analysts who file in to brief its members are required to surrender their phones.

“We don’t see many leaks from the war cabinet,” the Israeli official said. “When we do, it is usually intentional.”

But from the beginning, Israeli media tracked the debates taking place in the Pit, or in the secure conference room at the prime minister’s Jerusalem office, where the war cabinet also meets.

The reports suggest Gallant pushed unsuccessfully in the first weeks of the war to launch an offensive against Hezbollah, which was sending fighters to the Israeli border. Gantz and Eisenkot also frequently argued to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, as the war there destroyed infrastructure and took a devastating toll on Palestinian residents.

Netanyahu often delays committing to any particular course of action, the reports said.

But the divisions became more apparent over time. Gantz, Eizenkot and Gallant failed to appear with Netanyahu at some post-cabinet meeting media briefings.

In February, Israeli media obtained a letter from Eisenkot to his fellow members, criticizing the body’s inability to make strategic decisions. Eisenkot, whose son was killed fighting in Gaza last year, cited stalled efforts to negotiate the release of hostages and to plan for a civilian alternative to Hamas rule after the war, among other shortcomings.

In early March, Gantz flew to Washington for unsanctioned talks with administration officials, infuriating Netanyahu’s allies who accused him of trying to “drive a wedge” between Israelis. Earlier this month, Gantz, who has surpassed Netanyahu in the polls, called for Israel to hold elections in September.

The frictions were probably inevitable as the intensity of the fighting in Gaza began to ease, at least temporarily, and more political issues rose to the fore, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. Those include controversies over drafting more ultra-Orthodox Israelis and the role of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in Gaza’s future, he said.

The war cabinet “worked well in the beginning, but then general political issues began to degrade it,” Plesner said.

Then came more than 300 drones and missiles from the east.

Iran said it attacked Israel in retaliation for an Israeli strike on its embassy compound in the Syrian capital, Damascus, earlier this month. The Iranian operation, while unprecedented, caused little damage in Israel, but it rattled an already uneasy nation and persuaded Israeli leaders of the need for a response.

“The discussions now around the attack from Iran are masking, for a period, that general trend of the war cabinet losing its original role,” Plesner said.

As the operation unfolded Sunday, media reports portrayed Gantz as the more hawkish member, pressing for an immediate counterattack. But following a late-night call during which President Biden urged Netanyahu to show restraint, the war cabinet agreed to delay any decision.

As Biden and other allies lobbied Israel not to take actions that could lead to a regional war, Netanyahu and the war cabinet went unusually silent. They had requested a range of target options from the military and debated actions that would deter Iran without sparking further escalations, the Israeli official said.

As the world waited, some critics have blasted the ad hoc nature of the war cabinet — which, unlike the security cabinet, is not endorsed by Israeli law — as the wrong forum for such a momentous decision.

“The very fact that the fictitious ‘War Cabinet,’ a body without any legal status, is the one that discusses the critical strategic question of going to war against Iran — is a disturbing scandal,” Eran Etizion, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said on X Monday.





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