JERUSALEM: Former military chief Benny Gantz has burst onto Israel’s political scene as the great hope of the country’s shrinking “peace camp” with a message that is anything but dovish.
The retired general, who wants to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April 9 elections, boasts of killing Palestinian militants and aligns himself with political hard-liners. He fires back at Netanyahu’s criticism with scathing counterattacks.
In today’s Israel, Gantz’s ready-to-rumble rhetoric appears to be the only way to bring down the long-serving Netanyahu. That is turning him into an unlikely source of hope for Israelis who view ending their country’s rule over the Palestinians, now in its 51st year, as a priority.
Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1993 interim peace accords with the Palestinians, said fear of another Netanyahu term is driving much of the support for Gantz. He called Gantz a “black dove” — an imperfect but tolerable alternative to Netanyahu.
“Not that I agree with everything he says, but many of the things he is saying are OK from my point of view,” Beilin said.
Opinion polls forecast victory for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. But since Gantz’s recent maiden political speech, his new “Israel Resilience” party has emerged as No. 2.
The race could swing in the challenger’s favor. Netanyahu faces possible indictment in a series of corruption investigations, perhaps before the elections. Meanwhile, Gantz is reportedly exploring mergers with other centrist parties.
Gantz appears to be modeling himself after Ehud Barak and the late Yitzhak Rabin — former military chiefs-turned-prime ministers. Both used military credentials to lead security-obsessed Israel to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Wary of being branded a “leftist,” considered a put-down by many Israelis, Gantz has said little about his vision of peace with the Palestinians. He dresses his rhetoric in security terms as he tries to win support from Netanyahu’s nationalist base.
In his January speech, Gantz bragged about assassinating Ahmed Jabari, a former Hamas military commander whose death in an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip sparked an eight-day war in 2012.
“The heads of the terrorist organizations need to know that Ahmed Jabari was not the first, nor may he be the last,” Gantz warned.
Without giving details, he vowed to “strive for peace” and — if that is impossible — to shape a “new reality.” He said he’d strengthen West Bank settlement blocs and retain control of the Jordan Valley, a strategic section of the occupied West Bank the Palestinians seek as the heartland of a future state.
The UN has said about two-thirds of more than 2,100 Palestinians killed in the 2014 war were civilians.