Benny Gantz Poses a Serious Challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Grip on Power

TEL AVIV, Israel — Until a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed bound for inevitable re-election. Now in his 10th year in office, he appeared poised to replace Israel’s founding leader, David Ben Gurion, as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.

Yet as April’s parliamentary elections approach, the man whom supporters call “King Bibi” now faces for the first time in a decade a serious threat to his continued reign. Much of his vulnerability is due to the multiple corruption investigations against him, which have shaken public opinion.

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Yet another is the rise of Benjamin Gantz, more commonly called Benny. A three-star general whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, Gantz is using a centrist message that is resonating with the public. Polls show as many Israelis support him to be the next prime minister as Netanyahu. A February poll shows 47 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu replaced, compared with 35 percent who want him re-elected.

To be clear, Gantz remains an underdog to unseat Netanyahu when Israelis head to the polls on April 9. A governing coalition requires at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. In Israel’s parliamentary system, voters cast their ballots for a party, and Netanyahu’s Likud is currently polling well beyond its opponents.

But public enthusiasm for Gantz is chipping away at the prime minister’s perceived political strength: being seen as a tough leader who prioritizes security. Additionally, Gantz’s focus on political unity and leading a respectful campaign comes at a time when voters say they are weary of polarized politics.

“There’s something about Gantz’s personal conduct and personality that is both very authentic and compatible with the craving in the Israeli public for a type of leader that will bring Israelis together, seek a common civic denominator and reverse the current trend of divisiveness, tribalism and search for enemies from within,” says Yohanan Plesner, president of The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a nonpartisan think tank.

According to the 2018 Israeli Democracy Index, the greatest source of tension in Israeli society is between the left and right — worse than tensions between Arabs and Jews. That sentiment has tripled since 2009, when Netanyahu became prime minister. The survey also found that nearly half of Israelis believe their democracy is in grave danger, and that their government is corrupt.

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Last December, Gantz established a new political party, Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience). At first he maintained a subdued public persona, save for a few campaign ads that simultaneously flaunted his warrior credentials and his desire for peace with the Palestinians. “Do we want to send our children to war for another 25 years,” he asks in one ad.

On Jan. 29, Gantz officially entered the race to replace Netanyahu. At his campaign launch in Tel Aviv, the ex-military chief positioned himself as a centrist with no appetite for the bitter battles between right and left, and as a unifying force who would bridge that divide to move the country toward a brighter future.

Taking aim at the scandals and investigations surrounding Netanyahu, Israeli media quoted Gantz as saying, “The national government we will establish will show zero tolerance for corruption of any kind. The state’s money belongs to all its citizens and not to a small and privileged minority.”

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Netanyahu has responded by calling Gantz a leftist, a term that in Israel can be interpreted as weak on security and defense. Such attacks on Gantz are problematic. The 59-year-old served for 38 years in the Israel Defense Forces, the country’s most respected institution, rising to its highest rank. He commanded soldiers in two Lebanon wars, every Palestinian uprising and all three wars with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza. After serving as IDF chief of staff from 2011-2015, Gantz retired from public life.

Other developments during Netanyahu’s rule undercut his portrayal of himself as Israel’s protector-in-chief: Iran is on Israel’s doorstep in Syria; Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s government; Hamas still controls Gaza, and is gaining power in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s attacks became less fitting when Gantz joined forces with Moshe Ya’alon, a hawkish former defense minister and once-prominent member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu has continued to label Gantz a “weak leftist” in campaign ads and social media. His attacks intensified after Gantz said in an interview that Israel should not rule over another people. Netanyahu’s strategy may work: According to a December IDI poll, 64 percent of Israelis want a right or center-right government.

MORE: [Netanyahu’s Hard Right Turn Away From His Generals]

Still, many feel Netanyahu’s time is up.

“It’s not the same Likud today,” says Dan Emirgui, a 51-year-old former Netanyahu supporter who has voted Likud in every election. Now he will be voting for Gantz, his friend and former commander. “I’ve never been extreme right. People are just blindly following Bibi like sheep,” says Emirgui, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Referring to Gantz, he adds, “Someone who speaks respectfully to people, even to people he disagrees with, that’s what I want in my prime minister.”

That Gantz served as IDF chief of staff under Netanyahu also complicates the prime minister’s attacks on his rival. It’s hard to portray Gantz as a leftist when Netanyahu glorified the man before he became his political opponent. At a farewell ceremony in February 2015, when Gantz left the military, Netanyahu praised his decades of service to Israel’s security.

Gantz isn’t the first IDF chief of staff to enter politics. In fact, he’s the 12th out of 21 total chiefs of staff in Israeli history, including the one currently serving. Two became prime minister: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, both legendary generals who later in life dedicated their careers — and in Rabin’s case, his life — to pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

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“The defense establishment produces more pragmatic leaders,” Plesner says. “They know how to use force, but are also more aware of the consequences of war.”

Gantz’s campaign slogan — Israel Before All — is not an echo of “America First,” but a rallying cry to Israelis who believe that Netanyahu has placed himself before the country. Indeed, Gantz’s entire campaign is essentially a referendum on the prime minister, who voters and analysts say has used division as a tool to quiet descent, vilify opponents and maintain power.

“Populist attacks against the media, the Supreme Court, the attorney general — that’s Netanyahu’s strategy,” says Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Gantz is about stopping this negativism, and that’s important enough to many Israelis.”

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