Benny Gantz poses real threat to Netanyahu, poll shows

Possible coalition could build Israel Resilience into alternative to PM’s Likud party

Former general in Israeli army Benny Gantz: launched the Israel Resilience Party in December. Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Former general in Israeli army Benny Gantz: launched the Israel Resilience Party in December. Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

 

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu faces a serious new threat after an opinion poll on Wednesday showed a new centrist party led by the country’s former top general Benny Gantz winning 19 seats in April’s election for the 120-seat Knesset parliament.

Mr Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing Likud party remains the largest party with a projected 29 seats, down by four from recent polls.

Even more worrying for Mr Netanyahu, the poll by the Walla news site shows that if the centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid joins Mr Gantz’s party, along with another former top general, Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel Resilience will become the biggest party, with 33 seats.

Mr Gantz announced the formation of his Israel Resilience party in December but until Tuesday night’s inaugural campaign speech in Tel Aviv he had remained silent, increasing the intrigue around the man considered the only genuine threat to Mr Netanyahu.

His much-anticipated prime-time speech was broadcast live on Israel’s main television channels, injecting some excitement into what has been a rather lacklustre election campaign to date.

Settlement blocs

“No Israeli leader is a king,” he said to wild applause. Thanking Mr Netanyahu for his past decade in office, Mr Gantz said: “We’ll take it from here.”

Presenting himself as a moderate alternative to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Gantz said that a government he headed would strive to achieve peace and would not miss an opportunity to produce regional change.

He said that if it became evident that there was no way of achieving peace at this juncture, he would mould a new reality and would strengthen the West Bank settlement blocs. He also vowed that Israel would never leave the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley.

Mr Netanyahu is expected to be indicted by the attorney general next month on corruption charges pending a hearing and Mr Gantz made it clear that he would not serve under a prime minister facing an indictment.

Judicial hearing

Critically, however, unlike some other party leaders, Mr Gantz did not rule out the possibility of serving in a Netanyahu coalition until the judicial hearing is completed – a process that may drag on for a year or more.

Mr Netanyahu took to Twitter to brand Mr Gantz a leftist.

“Whoever says they are not right and not left – is left,” he said.

Likud tourism minister Yariv Levin claimed that the purpose of Mr Gantz’s speech had been to dupe right-wing voters.

“We weren’t surprised by Gantz. His goal is to pull voters from the right to build a left-wing government.”

Ahead of Mr Gantz’s speech, former defence minister Moshe Yaalon, who also served as Israel’s top general, agreed to merge his new party with Israel Resilience, guaranteeing the number two spot for himself and prompting commentators to dub Israel Resilience “the generals’ party”.

“History teaches us that generals have the best chance of passing the test of public confidence,” said Yohanan Plesner, head of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.