Popular former military chief jumps into politics in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — A popular former Israeli military chief jumped into the political fray Thursday, announcing he would run for office in the upcoming election and instantly injecting a potent challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy rule.

Retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has been polling favorably in recent weeks, emerging as a fresh, exciting face in Israel’s staid political landscape. By officially registering his new party, “Israel Resilience,” Gantz shakes up a snap three-month election campaign that has been widely seen as Netanyahu’s to lose.

Even before officially announcing his candidacy, several polls showed Gantz’s hypothetical party coming in second only to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud in a crowded field of contenders in the April 9 vote. A second-place finish would position Gantz for either a top Cabinet post in a Netanyahu government or to be a high-profile opposition leader.

Gantz has yet to comment publicly on the new party. Though he has yet to lay out his worldview or political platform, he flaunts stellar military credentials — a must in security-centric Israel — and a squeaky-clean image to contrast Netanyahu’s corruption-laden reputation.

Although still short of the kind of widespread support likely needed to become prime minister, Gantz’s candidacy captures a yearning in Israel for a viable alternative to emerge against the long-serving Netanyahu, who has been in office for nearly a decade and is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

With a commanding lead in the polls, and a potential indictment looming against him, Netanyahu called early elections this week, seeking to pre-empt possible corruption charges and return to office to become the longest serving premier in Israeli history.

Police have recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery and breach of trust in three different cases. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office.

Israel’s attorney general is now weighing whether to file criminal charges. Analysts say that Netanyahu hopes to win re-election before a decision is made, believing it would be much more difficult for the attorney general to charge a popular, newly elected leader.

Even with Netanyahu’s legal woes, he remains popular in opinion polls, while Israel’s established opposition remains splintered and unable to produce a viable challenger.

Like most retired security officials, Gantz is believed to hold moderate positions toward the Palestinians, which would set him apart from Netanyahu, who has largely ignored the issue while focusing on Iran’s influence in the region. But Gantz has been cagey about voicing his opinions, wary of alienating conservative voters crucial for a political upheaval.

Early opinion polls indicate that Gantz would take away votes from all the major parties and may not tip the scales away from Netanyahu just yet. But the emergence of the tall, telegenic ex-general with salty hair makes things more interesting, as he could spark new alliances with other moderate parties to give the hard-line Likud an honest fight.

“It’s too early to tell, but he definitely strengthens the center-left camp,” said Mina Tzemach, a leading Israeli pollster, whose most recent survey gave Gantz’s new party as many as 16 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. “He projects security and integrity. And the fact that he looks good doesn’t hurt either.”

Gantz, 59, was a paratrooper who rose up the ranks to head special operations units and other various commands before serving as military attache to the United States and ultimately becoming Israel’s 20th military chief between 2011-2015. His term was marked by two wars with Hamas militants in Gaza and a covert air campaign in Syria against Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Since his discharge, he has been aggressively courted by several Israeli political parties, but ultimately decided to go it alone for now as the leader of his own party.

Despite his impressive pedigree, Gantz remains a political unknown, which explains part of his appeal in such a highly partisan climate.

“There seems to be about 20 percent of the public that is fed up with what’s out there. He appeals to those who don’t want Netanyahu but can’t bring themselves to vote for the others either,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “He’s the flavor of the election.”

Israel is no stranger to such would-be saviors. In the 2013 elections, former TV anchor Yair Lapid came out of nowhere with his centrist Yesh Atid party to capture 19 seats and become Israel’s second-largest faction. Last time, in 2015, Moshe Kahlon’s economy-focused Kulanu became the unlikely kingmaker. Both, however, decided to join Netanyahu’s coalition rather than oppose him and their years in the system have taken off some of the shine since then.

Polls currently reflect a dichotomy in which most Israelis don’t want Netanyahu to continue to be their prime minister while simultaneously saying they see no preferred candidate to replace him. To finally topple Netanyahu, Gantz will likely have to team up with a combination of Lapid, Kahlon, the venerable Labor Party and others. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has called on the various candidates to “put their egos aside” and unite against Netanyahu.

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Follow Heller at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap

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