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Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz: the thorn in Netanyahu's side

Nir Elias, Reuters | Benny Gantz is neck-and-neck with his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, opinion polls say.

Former army chief of staff Benny Gantz failed to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April’s elections but his Blue and White alliance has another shot at power on September 17.

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For a novice politician, Benny Gantz has quickly become the biggest political thorn in Benjamin Netanyahu’s side.

In April, Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance (Kahol Lavan) and Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party both won 35 seats. Despite being better placed to form a coalition, Netanyahu failed to do so and was obliged to call for snap elections.

Gantz now has a second chance to unseat Netanyahu, who has been Israel’s leader since 2009. The latest opinion polls put them neck-and-neck.

"These elections are not a second chance which will be followed by another chance," warned Gantz at a recent campaign in the northern city of Haifa. "Anyone who does not vote jeopardises Israeli democracy," he added.

One-size-fits-all agenda?

In a bid to beat Likud, the former general has led a patriotic and inclusive campaign, a strategy that proved to be fairly successful in April’s elections, particularly among left-leaning voters.

Gantz is liberal on social issues (civil partnerships, LGBT), but has to walk a fine line between winning votes from the left, who see him as the only candidate capable of unseating Netanyahu, while attracting right-wing voters who are disappointed with Likud -- all while without losing support from the centre.

Gil Cohen-Magen, AFP | A Benny Gantz campaign sign.

In a bid to differentiate himself from Netanyahu, Gantz has taken the moral high ground and doesn’t hesitate to hit hard on his rival’s legal woes. Netanyahufaces a pre-indictment hearing in October on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. The Attorney General is then expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019.

Netanyahu has been in power for 10 consecutive years. Gantz has vowed to share the country’s top post with his running mate and centrist leader Yair Lapid.

“Benny Gantz is trying to propose an alternative to Netanyahu’s coalition by playing the secularist card, opposing populism with a more liberal and democratic vision,” Gideon Rahat, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told FRANCE 24.

Gantz portrays himself as credible and measured, while highlighting issues that are important to the right, such as security. As in his previous campaign, Gantz seeks to appear as uncompromising as his rival on the defence of Israel, particularly on the threat posed from Iran.

“Vote for me: I’m meaner than Netanyahu, but I’m clean,” the left-wing newspaper Haaretz joked earlier this year, paraphrasing Gantz.

Is Gantz a ‘cleaned-up’ Netanyahu clone?

With two former army chiefs of staff as running mates (Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi), Gantz challenges Netanyahu’s image of guarantor of Israel’s stability and security in each and every one of his speeches.

He focuses his attacks on what he believes to be the prime minister’s Achilles heel: the security situation in the Gaza Strip.

“A prime minister who is under judicial investigation is not in a position to face Hamas,” says Gantz repeatedly. In mid-August, infiltration attempts from the northern Gaza strip and rocket fire from the Palestinian Islamist movement resumed. Gantz has capitalised on this to accuse the government of losing its deterrence capacity, and of showing weakness against Hamas. If he wins the election, he has vowed to launch a military campaign to permanently destroy Hamas.

“In short, Gantz’s allies are trying to convince voters that Netanyahu is all talk, that he remains unable to solve the problem posed by Hamas in Gaza,” explains Sami Sockol, FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent.

Netanyahu has responded by raising the stakes, promising, on 10 September, to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley if he is re-elected. Gantz couldn’t attack him on policy here, only on the timing of the announcement.

For Gantz has also promised that Israel will keep responsibility for security east of the Jordan River, including in the occupied West Bank. And like his rival, he aims to "strengthen" the existing settlement blocs in the Palestinian territory.

But the Blue and White alliance has a different stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the peace process is at a standstill, and has been overshadowed by social issues, Gantz has shown a desire to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.

“Nevertheless, any decision with strategic implications lies with the people,” says Gantz.

Would Gantz be able to form a coalition?

However, whether Gantz can form a coalition remains to be seen.

With limited room for manoevure, Gantz has already said he would consider a deal with Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist and secular Israel Beitenou party, even though this might anger his electorate.

For this extreme right-wing figure, who is on a crusade against the ultra-religious, could play the role of kingmaker, according to the latest polls, by taking as many as ten seats (compared to the five obtained in April).

It was Lieberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition in April which forced the prime minister to call for snap elections.

For Gantz, the ideal coalition would include his party, Lieberman's party and the Likud (without Netanyahu -- because of the looming possible corruption indictments against the Israeli premier), and "perhaps" the Labour Party, for which his father had been a local leader.

However, he has always failed to mention the Arab parties, which are nevertheless the third largest force in the current parliament. Yet Netanyahu’s allies accuse him of trying to make deals with them on a daily basis, in order to dissuade right-wing voters from leaning in Likud’s favour. “The only government Gantz can set up is a government of leftists and Arabs; he has no other government because the Likud does not want anything to do with him,” the right-wing party said in a statement in early September.

“Arab parties have never been part of any government since the birth of the state of Israel, and it’s unrealistic to envisage Benny Gantz offering them government positions,” Elisabeth Marteu, associate researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and specialist on Israel, told FRANCE 24.

Gantz “could ultimately negotiate their support for the Knesset to have a parliamentary majority, but after Gantz’s comment about some Arab parties, this seems difficult”, Marteu added.

But perhaps this is the only way for Gantz to get the keys to power.

This article has been adapted from the original in French

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