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Israel at war: What role does its War Cabinet play?

April 16, 2024

The big question following Iran's weekend attack is how Israel will respond. The Israeli War Cabinet will play a central role in formulating an answer.

White streaks across a night sky, indicating the flight path of missiles
Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepted 99% of the drones and missiles, officials saidImage: Tomer Neuberg/picture alliance/AP

Iran and Israel are exchanging blows, as global fears rise that the conflict in the Middle East could widen. On Saturday, Iran launched some 300 ballistice missiles, drones and cruise missiles   toward Israel, according to Israeli defense officials.

Tehran says the attack was in retaliation for what it called an Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in Damascus that killed seven people in early April.

Peter Lintl, a research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says Israel's response to this most recent attack will have far-reaching consequences for the wider Middle East.

Who decides on Israel's response?

Shortly after the Hamas-led October 7 attack, Israel's government decided to create a three-member War Cabinet. Formally a part of Israel's State Security Cabinet, the War Cabinet is tasked with overseeing military operations that Israel launched in Gaza in retaliation for the attack. The War Cabinet has three ministerial observers.

World leaders urge restraint from Israel after Iran's attack

Israeli and US officials say that Iran supports the militant wing of Hamas, which the US, Germany, the EU and others deem a terrorist organization, with funding, weapons, and training. Israel's allies argue that Iran is therefore "broadly complicit" in Hamas' attack in Israel.

Who serves in the War Cabinet?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the ring-wing Likud party heads the War Cabinet. Its other two decisionmakers are fellow Likud member and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant; as well as former head of the military and head of the liberal Zionist Israel Resilience party, Benny Gantz. Leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid from the centrist Zionist Yesh Atid party, was offered a seat but declined.

The War Cabinet's three observers are retired general Gadi Eisenkot of the National Unity party affiliated with Gantz's Israel Resilience; Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-orthodox Shas party; and Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer. All three may attend meetings, but none have a vote.

Why is there an emergency government?

Following the October 7 attack, Israel's Security Cabinet formally placed the country under a state of war, thereby permitting "significant military activities" to be carried out in response.

Netanyahu's current regular Cabinet is considered the most right-wing government in Israeli history. Lintl believes the War Cabinet is more balanced, and therefore has more legitimacy to make far-reaching political and military decisions regarding military operations in the besieged Gaza Strip.

"The controversy surrounding his judicial reform had already cost Netanyahu a lot of support," Lintl explained. "Hamas' terror attack on October 7 only increased the pressure on him."

He added that Netanyahu required broad coalitions to enforce war-related decisions. Adding that without multipartisan support the prime minister could face growing calls for his resignation.

How is the War Cabinet responding to Iran?

"A military counterstrike is very likely," Lintl said. "The question is when, and how, and where."

Following Iran's Saturday attack, Israel's War Cabinet convened on Sunday and again on Monday to discuss an appropriate response. Lintl believes that response could include symbolic measures, or a cyberattack.

"To avoid further escalation in the Middle East, we can only hope that an Israeli counterattack is not imminent, and limited in scope," the analyst said.

The UN, EU and Western allies, including the US, UK and France, have been calling upon Israel to exercise restraint and avoid further escalation of the conflict. In Gaza, Israel's military operation has killed over 34,000 civilians, over 13,000 of whom were children, and displaced 1.8 million, or about 80% of the population. Moreover, Israel's ongoing blockade of the enclave has caused famine in at least some areas of Gaza.

This article was originally published in German.