Who is Yoav Gallant, the ruthless military man tipped to be Israel's next prime minister?

Who is Yoav Gallant, the ruthless military man tipped to be Israel's next prime minister?
Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has been one of the most recognisable faces of the Israeli military assault on Gaza.
4 min read
21 November, 2023
Gallant, a former commando, now leads the Israeli military [Getty]

Since Israel announced a complete siege on the Gaza Strip on 7 October, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has become the face of the military assault on the enclave.

Gallant is viewed as a more pragmatic minister than the far-right idealogues that fill Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet, but he has also overseen one of the most intense bombing campaigns in modern history killing thousands of children.

With Gallant's name put forward as a potential challenger to Netanyahu we look at the defence minister's military and political rise, and why he might be Israel's next leader.

What is Gallant's background?

Gallant was born in Jaffa in 1958, the son of Polish Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. His mother, Fruma, was on board SS Exodus. a ship transporting European Jewish refugees to Palestine with the journey made into a 1960 Hollywood movie.

His father, Michael, fought as an anti-Nazi partisan in World War II and later took part in Operation Yoav during Israel's 1948 war against Egypt. A decade later he named his son after this battle.

Yoav himself grew up in relatively modest conditions close to Tel Aviv and later attended the University of Haifa, where he obtained a BA in business and finance management.

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What about his military background?

Like many of Israel's political leaders, Gallant served in the Israeli military's special forces. He served as a commando in the Israeli Navy's elite Shayetet 12 Unit, which is tasked with special operations and intelligence gathering.

After a two-year hiatus working as a lumberjack in Alaska, Gallant rejoined the Israeli Navy's Flotilla 13 unit as a commander. 

Gallant was highly regarded for his leadership qualities in the special forces unit but made the unconventional step of asking to be transferred to the Jenin Brigade in the Israeli army.

He took part in Israeli ground operations in 2008 Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza, which killed more than 1,500 Palestinians.

This saw him face stern criticism for alleged war crimes committed by his forces during the campaign and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit when he was head of the Southern Command.

In total, he spent 35 years in the military, including with the Gaza Division, a combined arms outfit initially set up to protect settlers in the Palestinian enclave.

Near the end of his military career, Gallant was nominated for the chief of staff position by former PM Ehud Barak but his candidacy was eventually revoked over his land holdings.

How did he end up in politics?

Gallant was elected as an MP for the centre-right Kulanu Party in 2015 with a rapid rise up the political chain over the coming years, particularly after he defected to Netanyahu's Likud Party in 2018.

Over the next few years, he held the portfolios for construction, aliyeh & integration, and education, before being given the coveted minister of defence position in 2022.

In March, Netanyahu unofficially fired Gallant as minister for opposing his government's controversial judicial overhaul plans, before being the PM reversed his decision 15 days later.

He has now led Israel as defence minister during perhaps the most critical stage of Israel's history.

Israel's defence ministers since 2016
2016-2018: Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu
2018-2019: Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud
2019-2020: Naftali Bennett, New Right
2020-2022: Benny Gantz, Blue and White
2022-present: Yoav Galland, Likud

What role has he played in the Gaza war?

As defence minister, Gallant has ultimately led Israel's assault on Gaza, which has seen refugee camps, schools, hospitals and places of worship bombed.

The level of brutality unleashed on Gaza has been unmatched in recent history, highlighting a ruthless streak in Gallant that will likely appeal to those Israelis hungry to avenge Hamas's 7 October killings.

When Gallant announced a complete siege on Gaza that day, he was widely accused of using genocidal language.

"There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed," he said. "We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly."

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What next for Gallant?

Gallant is widely expected to be a future PM, particularly after the security failure on 7 October shattered Netanyahu's reputation as "Mr. Security" but many will remember this also happened on his watch as defence minister.

He has been on note with most of the Israeli public during the government's judicial overhaul attempts, a stance that nearly cost him his job, while the ruthlessness of the Gaza campaign will likely strike a chord with many Israelis.

This is why many Israeli political commentators have tipped him to become Israel's next premier but that will depend on how Israel ends the Gaza assault and whether Israeli military losses continue to mount.