A former Israeli army chief, Benjamin Gantz presents himself as a clean, strong-willed prime ministerial candidate for Israel's upcoming elections, an attribute that sounds so rare in a country mired in high-profile corruption scandals.
As Israel gears up for a crucial general election on April 9, the country’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces unexpected resistance from former army chief Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, who declared his candidacy for the top political post last month, establishing a new party called the Israel Resilience Party.
Netanyahu, who holds the record for the longest single term (his second term) in Israel, is seeking a fifth term in office. If he wins one more time and stays in power for at least three months, he will be the longest-serving prime minister of Israel, surpassing the country’s founding leader and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
But Netanyahu's leadership of more than a decade appears to have come full circle as the right-wing politician not only faces the anti-incumbency factor but also a smouldering resentment from within his own administration. He is facing serious corruption charges at home and a lot of Israelis, including Gantz, have criticised him for being a polarising figure.
“I feel that the time has come for new leadership, which will create a united, unified, cohesive society. Leadership that behaves differently and leads differently. Leadership that will not place itself before the good of the State and which will not weaken us from within,” Gantz told an enthusiastic Israeli crowd, during his party’s campaign debut in Tel Aviv on January 29.
Gantz, a 59-year old retired officer, who had served in the Israeli army nearly four decades, is known for his quiet manner. Many analysts think that his authoritative silence, combined with his decisive look, might favour him to win sizeable portions of both the centre-left and centre-right voters, making him the best possible replacement for Netanyahu.
The day after he made a promising speech on January 29, polls showed the Israeli Resilience Party has increased its share of the Israeli electorate, almost drawing parallel to Netanyahu, who has led the right-wing Likud Party since 2005.
Gantz neutrality in an increasingly militaristic Israel
During his first serious political speech, Gantz repeatedly said that he would defend the values and interests of all Israelis without siding with the country’s political right or left, a distant dream for any Israeli politician in a country where military aggression against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims has been normalised.
“The conflict between left and right is tearing us apart; the clash between religious and secular is dividing us. The tension between Jews and non-Jews is threatening us… The political arena is poisoned. In my view, the current leadership is obsessed with itself, not with you or us,” Gantz said.
He also pointed out that he is hearing more complaints from both left and right on the country’s direction and divisive politics.
Netanyahu quickly discarded Gantz’s neutrality claims.
“To those who say he is neither right nor left—he’s left,” the Israeli leader said. But he previously praised the general’s military credentials describing Gantz as an "excellent officer and experienced commander”, with rich operational and logistical experience and all the attributes needed to be a successful army commander, according to The Jerusalem Post.
But under Netanyahu’s long tenure, Israel has slipped towards the far-right, and became the most condemned nation at the UN in 2018 for its actions against Palestinians.
“The current regime encourages incitement, subversion and hatred. The basic values of Israeli statehood have been converted into the mannerisms of a French royal house,” Gantz said, condemning Netanyahu’s politics.
Despite Gantz’s neutrality claims, some Israeli analysts thought that his militaristically-toned maiden event, attended by “hawkish army generals” and interrupted by “nationalistic slogans” such as: Israel before anything; The state over the individual; One people, one state, one nation, evoked “neo-fascist leanings,” resembling those of Italy’s anti-Semitic fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
“In a public arena that essentially ignores the occupation and peace with Palestinians, for a political camp that yearns to elect ‘anyone but Bibi’ [Netanyahu’s nickname] and for all Israelis who fear the demise of their democracy more than Netanyahu’s future indictment, trial and possible incarceration, Gantz passed his baptism under the media’s harsh spotlights with flying colours,” wrote Chemi Shalev, an Israeli journalist.
A militarist patriot?
While Gantz, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, has launched a campaign against Netanyahu along the margins of justice and equality, his stance on a range of critical issues -- such as Israeli illegal settlements on Palestinian land and the occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights -- portrays a troubling picture.
Gantz is also supportive of an intensive air campaign against Iranian targets, which could lead a wider war across the Middle East between Tel Aviv and Tehran.
His silence makes analysts and pundits wonder whether he is really thinking about a solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his first campaign speech, he did not indicate whether he supports or opposes a two-state solution. Neither did he indicate any specific resolution to the decades-long bloody conflict.
“If it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality. Even if we cannot make peace with our neighbours, we will work hard and reach peace within ourselves,” Gantz said.
A well-educated military man surrounded by generals, Gantz appears to embody an Israeli statesmanship, something the country desperately seeks in an age of corruption scandals, according to some experts.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted on bribery charges in 2015. Moshe Katsav, Israel’s eighth president, was also sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 over obstruction of justice, rape and other charges.
Even a former energy minister, Gonen Segev, has recently pleaded guilty of spying for Iran, the archenemy of Israel.
Netanyahu is also on the edge of a possible indictment over bribery and fraud charges.
“The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me. This cannot happen,” Gantz said.