Analysis: Who is Benny Gantz?

Seemingly out of nowhere, Benny Gantz’s newly formed Israel Resilience party has risen to second place in the opinion polls, representing the biggest barrier to Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of re-election in April.

But the former IDF chief of staff’s surge has thus far been predicated on silence. By barely uttering an opinion about politics, he’s allowed Israelis to project their own views on to him.

That strategy came to an end last week when Gantz formally launched his election campaign, dropping a strong hint at the strategy he’ll deploy to unseat Netanyahu when Israel votes on 9 April.

Gantz’s launch speech emphasised the themes of unity, peace and security, and a focus on Israel’s domestic challenges, all the while subtly presenting himself as the antithesis in character of the man he hopes to replace as Prime Minister. “Most of all, I believe – like you – in hope,” Gantz declared, consciously echoing the theme of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign when another political outsider attempted to end a long-run of right-wing rule.

Gantz, who has never run for, or held, political office before, follows a long line of generals who have put themselves forward for election. Some – most notably Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak – met with success. Others have found the transition from giving orders to asking for votes rather more challenging.

Gantz’s principal pitch was that he is the man to heal Israel’s increasingly fractured and polarised society. Promising to build a “unified, united, cohesive society”, he declared: “There is nothing more precious in the world to me than the state of Israel. For me, Israel really is before all. We are one nation. We share one flag, one anthem and one army.”

The former general contrasted his approach with that of Netanyahu. “Politics is ugly, and the public arena has become poisoned,” he argued. “A strong government governs to unite and doesn’t govern in order to separate, to rule.”

He painted the Prime Minister as a modern-day Louis XIV. “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,” he suggested. “Instead of serving the people, the government looms over the people and finds the people to be a bore.”

“There was already a king who said: ‘The State is me.’ But no. Not here. No Israeli leader is a king. The state is not me. The state is you. The state is actually us. The state is all of us.”

Alluding to Netanyahu’s attacks on the left, media, and police and courts, Gantz announced: “Our government will not see ferocious attacks against the chief of staff, the [police] commissioner and the attorney general. There will be no incitement against the judicial, cultural and media institutions. We will not instill hatred against half a people on the right or half on the left.”

The appeal was well-pitched, suggested analysts. “Politics is very divisive,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “There is a major rift between different sides of the political spectrum, much more than in the past. There is a craving for a kind of leadership that can bring us together, and for many Israelis, he represents that.”

If his promise of unity versus Netanyahu’s divisiveness was one theme, another was the Prime Minister’s current legal difficulties. “The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me,” Gantz argued. “This cannot happen.” Pointedly, he declared: “I have always kept my hands clean.”

Gantz also attempted to present himself as a leader who would bring Israel peace without compromising its security. He thus invoked the memory of two former Prime Minister – one from the right, and one from the left – suggesting: “Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change. This is what the Israeli patriot Menachem Begin did, who signed a peace agreement with Egypt. This is what the Israeli patriot Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, did in the peace agreement with Jordan.”

There was also praise for Netanyahu’s peace-making efforts during his first term as Prime Minister – but it was delivered with a distinct sting in the tail. “This is what Benjamin Netanyahu did – yes, he is also an Israeli patriot – who delivered the ‘Bar-Ilan speech’ [which endorsed a two-state solution] and signed the Hebron evacuation agreement and the Wye agreement with the murderer Yasser Arafat.”

This theme is featured in one of Gantz’s campaign ads, which contains images of Rabin, Begin and Netanyahu with Arab and Palestinian political leaders. Another features Gantz’s own role in taking on Hamas in Gaza. “Only the strong wins,” it declares. This, too, was a theme of the former general’s campaign launch.

“In the harsh and violent Middle East surrounding us, there is no mercy for the weak. Only the strong survive,” Gantz suggested as he delivered strong words for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. He vowed to “thwart [Iran’s] plots in the north, south, and anywhere else in the Middle East. I will work against you in the international arena, in the economic arena and in the military arena”.

“The regional rampage has ended. The Jewish people are entitled to live in peace and security, and not under constant threat. We do not threaten the sovereignty of Tehran or any other country, and we will not tolerate a threat to Israeli sovereignty.” There would be no Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which some in the international community want to see handed over to the Assad regime.

On Gaza, he pledged: “I will allow any humanitarian assistance to the residents of Gaza. I will assist in the economic development of the Gaza Strip.” But he also attacked Netanyahu for allowing the transfer of Qatari cash to pay the salaries of Hamas civil servants in Gaza. “I will not allow the payment of protection cash payments in suitcases to murderous gangs.”

In terms of the Palestinians, Gantz said little. He suggested little room for negotiation over the status of Jerusalem and – while not ruling out a Palestinian state – suggested Israel would maintain security control of the border between the West Bank and Jordan. He also vowed to “strengthen the settlement blocs”. That pledge is less hardline than it might appear: most observers expect Israel to maintain control of the settlement blocs (which abut the 1967 Green Line) in any future peace deal, offering the Palestinians instead compensating land swaps. There was no promise not to evacuate settlements further east.

Finally, Gantz said he would tackle Israel’s domestic challenges and presented himself as socially liberal, saying he would “smash all glass ceilings that prevent women from equality” and “grant the gay community full rights as granted to all citizens of the state”.

On healthcare, education, transport and the environment, Gantz promised action, while decrying Netanyahu’s record. For some, this was the least convincing section of the launch. “A frankly impossible array of issues he would resolve, tensions he would ameliorate,” suggested David Horovitz of the Times of Israel. “On and on it went — a rehabilitation list that would test the capabilities of the Messiah.”

While a mix of silence and praise followed from politicians on the centre and the left, Gantz immediately came under sustained attack from the right. Their assault suggested the former general will be presented as an leftwinger who trades in empty rhetoric and can’t be trusted to keep Israel safe.

Netanyahu led the charge, tweeting that “anyone who says he isn’t left or right – is left.” His acolytes joined the fray, presenting Gantz as a master of “flattering posters and poetic slogans” who “didn’t give his opinion on important political issues”.

From education minister Naftali Bennett, the hardline leader of the New Right party, came the warning that Gantz was a “leftist”. “It is dangerous to give him the defence portfiolio or responsibility for the security of Israel”; a curious line of attack on a recently departed IDF chief of staff.

That attack will also ring hollow to many Israelis after Gantz announced the first of the alliances he’s hoping to form in order to assemble a coalition that will drive Netanyahu from office. Israel Resilience has come to a deal with Moshe Ya’alon, another former IDF chief of staff, who served as Netanyahu’s defence minister from 2013-16 but has since turned into a fierce critic of the Prime Minister and pledged not to serve in a cabinet led by him. Ya’alon’s Telem party is expected to receive three of the top 10 spots on Israel Resilience’s election slate.

A bigger fish that Gantz hopes to reel in is Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. Neither man is, as yet, willing, to give up the leadership of any alliance and thus the chance to become Prime Minister. However, polls show that such a partnership would possibly overtake Netanyahu. Both Lapid and Gantz – who, polls show, are currently competing for second place, with the latter edging it – are hoping to pull ahead of the other sufficiently clearly to assert their supremacy.