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Gantz: Israeli ex-general, pragmatist joins rival Netanyahu in emergency govt

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who agreed Monday to form an emergency government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is widely seen as defined more by pragmatism and opposition to the right-wing premier than concrete policies.

The 60-year-old has been in the public eye since first declaring political ambitions and running for office in December 2018.

Within months, his centrist Blue and White party shocked Israeli politics by matching Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in polls last April and then edging slightly ahead of it in September.

But neither party was able to gain the support of more than half the 120 MPs in the country's proportional system, forcing yet another election on March 2, the third within less than a year.

After the vote, anti-Netanyahu forces, despite their deep divisions, unanimously rallied behind Gantz and recommended him to form a government.

But when the anti-Netanyahu camp forced the ouster of parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein last month, Gantz put himself forward as a replacement in a surprise move and was elected speaker on March 26.

In his first remarks after that election, Gantz called for an emergency unity government, saying "these are unusual times and they call for unusual decisions".

Monday's deal will allow Netanyahu to stay in office for 18 months, with Gantz taking over for another 18 months before new elections.

- 'Benny-huta' -

Gantz was born on June 9, 1959, in the southern village of Kfar Ahim, which his immigrant parents, both Holocaust survivors, helped establish.

He joined the army in 1977 and went on to command Shaldag, an air force special operations unit.

Standing well over six feet (1.82 metres) tall, he earned the military nickname "Benny-huta", a play on a word meaning "no rush" and reflecting his relaxed character.

In 1994, he returned to the army to command a brigade and then a division in the occupied West Bank, before serving as Israel's military attaché to the United States from 2005 until 2009.

He was the army's chief of staff from 2011 until his retirement in 2015, working closely with Netanyahu.

In 2014, he commanded the army's operations in the war with Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and has boasted of the number of Palestinian militants killed and targets destroyed.

Blue and White is often hawkish on security and includes a number of Likud defectors in senior positions, but it lost several members after Gantz said he would seek a deal with Netanyahu.

Through the latest campaign, Gantz sought to keep voter attention on the corruption charges against Netanyahu.

- 'In tandem' -

Gantz has kept his positions vague in several key areas, including the moribund peace process with the Palestinians.

Like Netanyahu, he was quick to endorse US President Donald Trump's controversial peace plan, viewed as overwhelmingly pro-Israeli and firmly rejected by the Palestinians.

But while calling it a "historic milestone", he also seemed to hint at reservations.

"Immediately after the elections, I will work toward implementing it from within a stable, functioning Israeli government, in tandem with the other countries in our region."

Some saw the idea of "in tandem" with neighbouring Arab states and the Palestinians as a tactic to bury the plan indefinitely.

But security hawk Gantz, like Netanyahu, has insisted the West Bank's strategic Jordan Valley must remain under Israeli control.

As the COVID-19 epidemic intensified following the last election in March, calls mounted for Gantz and Netanyahu to unite and offer the country a rare period of political calm as it battles an unprecedented health crisis.

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