Israel's Gantz: military man on a mission to beat Netanyahu

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Benny Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main challenger in Tuesday's elections, is a respected former military chief who says he can restore honour to the premier's office.

Gantz, a 60-year-old ex-paratrooper, had no previous political experience when he declared himself as Netanyahu's electoral rival in December.

The head of the centrist Blue and White alliance has since presented himself as someone who can heal divisions in Israeli society, which he says have been exacerbated by Netanyahu.

For many of his supporters, he is the anti-Netanyahu, though more in personality than in terms of policies, which the two to a large degree share, particularly on security.

His alliance and Netanyahu's Likud each won 35 seats in April elections, but the premier was given the chance to form a coalition due to support from smaller right-wing and religious parties.

Netanyahu failed to do so and opted instead for another election, despite facing potential indictment for corruption.

In a recent campaign speech in the northern city of Haifa, Gantz said that this time the election needs to produce a clear winner.

"These elections are not a second chance which will be followed by another chance," he said.

"Anyone who does not vote is acquiescing in jeopardising Israeli democracy."

- 'Higher moral value' -

Gantz was born on June 9, 1959, in Kfar Ahim, a southern Israeli village that his immigrant parents, both Holocaust survivors, helped to establish.

He joined the army in 1977, completing the tough selection course for the paratroopers.

He went on to command Shaldag, an air force special operations unit. In 1994, he returned to the army to command a brigade and then a division in the occupied West Bank.

According to his official army biography, he was Israel's military attache to the United States from 2005 until 2009.

He was chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, when he retired, and has boasted in video clips of the number of Palestinian militants killed and targets destroyed under his command in the 2014 war with Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers.

Gantz has a BA in history from Tel Aviv University, a master's degree in political science from Haifa University and a master's in national resource management from the National Defence University in the United States.

He is married and a father of four.

A security hawk, he is determined to keep the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank under Israeli control forever and maintain Israeli sovereignty over mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

The two main contenders are in step on external threats such as archfoe Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah as well as Hamas, says political scientist Jonathan Freeman of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

That is unsurprising, he told AFP, given the makeup of Blue and White's leadership, which includes two other former armed forces chiefs of staff, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi.

"Many of them have worked with Netanyahu over the years on these similar security matters," he said.

"I don't foresee any real changes in terms of security policy" should Blue and White manage to assume power this time around, Freeman said.

But he said that their public appeal does not lie only or even primarily in their security acumen but in the respect which Israelis hold for their army.

"It's rather that they represent some higher moral value," he said.

"Because Netanyahu's been painted as someone who's always thinking about himself and maybe is corrupt."

- 'Zero tolerance' -

Gantz has pledged to improve public services and show "zero tolerance" for corruption -- a reference to graft allegations facing Netanyahu.

Regarding the Palestinians, the Blue and White election manifesto speaks of wanting to separate from them, but does not specifically mention a two-state solution.

Gantz is liberal on social issues related to religion and state, favouring the introduction of civil marriage.

His goal, commentators say, is aimed at taking votes from Netanyahu's right-wing coalition without alienating the centre.

To combat that, Netanyahu constantly describes Gantz and his colleagues as "weak left" -- a claim that is unfounded, according to Assaf Shapira of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

"They're not left. Blue and White is a centrist party," he told AFP.

After gaffes on live TV appearances earlier in the campaign, Gantz has been less visible lately, and some say not visible enough.

"No one can say that his public profile is strong enough but when you look at the polls, he's doing OK," Shapira said.

"It may be a strategic decision by his advisors.

"He's not very good at TV, honestly. He's been a general, he's not a politician. He's not like Netanyahu and others so it doesn't help him to be on TV or in the newspapers or other media."