Benny Gantz: The man who could dethrone Netanyahu

Israel’s former top general may be on the cusp of leading a historic political upset

Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of  Blue and White, leans forward  during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, outside the northern Gaza Strip, in southern Israel. Photograph: Amir Cohen

Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of Blue and White, leans forward during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, outside the northern Gaza Strip, in southern Israel. Photograph: Amir Cohen

 

Benny Gantz, Israel’s former top general, wants to end Binyamin Netanyahu’s decades-long dominance of Israeli politics.

Gantz (59), who has no political experience and has been reluctant to provide details on his policy platform, only entered politics in December, setting up a new centrist party, Israel Resilience, which last month merged with another centrist party, Yesh Atid, to form Blue and White, after the colours of the Israeli flag.

With less than a month to go before the April 9th Knesset elections, polls show the Blue and White alliance will emerge as the largest party, enjoying a lead of between three to five seats over Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, although the overall right-religious and centre-left blocs remain evenly matched.

Good-looking, tall and blue-eyed, Gantz projects an image of calm and trustworthiness. His is a fresh face, untainted by corruption and the dirty deals of Israeli politics, and with an illustrious military career to boot.

My life began before I was born... It began the moment my mother Malka walked out of  Bergen-Belsen 

He was born in Kfar Ahim, a moshav co-operative agricultural community between Tel Aviv and Gaza, in 1959.

His parents were Holocaust survivors: his mother from Hungary and his father from Romania.

“In many ways, my life began before I was born,” Gantz said. “It began the moment my mother Malka walked out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I will always remember the ones who never came out.”

Humble upbringing

Gantz had a humble upbringing, and before enlisting in the army he was sent to an agricultural boarding school by his father, who thought he was growing up spoilt, surrounded by his three sisters.

According to relatives, he received “a Mediterranean education”, as he often skipped classes to head for the beach.

In the army he joined the paratroopers, and his first assignment as a young recruit was to participate in securing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977.

In 1991 he led the commando unit that was on the ground in Ethiopia for 36 hours, during which 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were secretly airlifted to Israel.

In 2000, when Israel ended 18 years of military presence in Lebanon, he was the last soldier to cross the border and shut the gates.

Gantz gained a reputation as a cautious commander and a gentleman during his rise through the ranks. Former general Tal Russo, number two on the rival Labour list, welcomed Gantz’s entry into politics.

“We want at the wheel someone who knows how to navigate and Benny has this. Some people see the fact that he’s a mensch and his gentle nature as weakness: I see it as strength.”

Benny Gantz attends a meeting with members of the Druze community of Israel in the city of Daliyat al-Karmel. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Benny Gantz attends a meeting with members of the Druze community of Israel in the city of Daliyat al-Karmel. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

But there were also controversial incidents during Gantz’s military career that are being used today by his political opponents to question his suitability to lead the country.

In 2000, Gantz was the army’s West Bank commander when a 19-year-old Druze border guard, Madhat Yusuf, died after being injured in clashes at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.

If Hamas leaders could vote they would vote for Benny Gantz, the hesitant general

Yusuf bled to death while Israel negotiated for more than five hours with the Palestinian security forces over a safe evacuation for him.

“Benny Gantz was one of those commanders who turned his back on him [Yusuf],” claimed Likud minister Gilad Erdan.

Hamas threat

By the time of the 2014 Gaza war, Gantz was the army’s chief of staff. It became clear during the course of the campaign that the military had underestimated the Hamas tunnel threat and was not ready to locate and destroy the tunnels, some of which reached under the border into Israel.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: described police recommendations as “biased, extreme and as full of holes as Swiss cheese”. Photograph: Nir Elias
"With support from the left and centre guaranteed, Gantz realised that his only hope of toppling Netanyahu was to attract voters from the right." File photograph: Nir Elias

Naftali Bennett, the head of the New Right party, said Gantz’s 51 days of “indecision” during the war led to a stalemate.

“Gantz is Hamas’s wet dream,” Bennett said. “If Hamas leaders could vote they would vote for Benny Gantz, the hesitant general.”

Critics also point out that before entering politics Gantz became the chairman of a Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity company that declared bankruptcy after three years.

With support from the left and centre guaranteed, Gantz realised that his only hope of toppling Netanyahu was to attract voters from the right.

He played up his military credentials, posting video clips entitled Only the Strong Prevail which boasted about the number of “terrorists” killed in the Gaza war, without mention of the high number of civilian casualties, and showed Gaza neighbourhoods in ruins.

“No Israeli leader is king,” Gantz declared in his inaugural election speech. “I thank prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his 10 years of service. We’ll take it from here.”

Gantz vowed that a government he headed would strive to achieve peace and regional change, but if peace was not possible at this juncture he committed to strengthening West Bank settlement blocs and keeping control of the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu has said the choice is now clearer than ever: a strong right-wing government led by him or a weak left-wing government headed by Gantz.

The Israeli electorate will decide next month.

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