JERUSALEM — With seven weeks left until Israelis go to the polls, the two most likely candidates to become the country’s next prime minister, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and newcomer Benny Gantz — both highly decorated former Israeli army officers — have taken aim, at each other.
On Tuesday night, at a rally of his Israel Resilience Party, Gantz launched a direct attack on Netanyahu, accusing him of abandoning Israel when he was younger in favor of a more comfortable life in America, where he could hobnob at cocktail parties, practice “Boston” English and wear luxury suits.
Gantz’s comments did not come in a void. They follow more than a week of almost nonstop video clips circulated on social media by Netanyahu’s Likud party featuring ominous claims that Gantz plans to join forces with Arab parties, that he supported the Iran nuclear deal and even that he went behind Netanyahu’s back to negotiate a withdrawal from the West Bank with President Barack Obama.
So far, Gantz’s response to the claims has been succinct: “Lies, lies, lies lies, lies, lies, lies, lies.”
That changed at Tuesday’s rally. The former army chief of staff spoke out much more forcefully against Netanyahu, whowould become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, overtaking the country’s founder David Ben Gurion, if he wins the April 9 election.
“Benjamin Netanyahu, I worked with you, side by side,” said Gantz. “I know your abilities from up close. I value your contribution. . . . But I also know your weaknesses very well.”
He went on to highlight his own work as one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers, all the while contrasting it with that of Netanyahu. The incumbent is known for enjoying some of the finer things in life and is facing possible indictment on charges of corruption and breach of public trust.
“When I lay in muddy foxholes with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, left Israel to improve your English and practice it at luxurious cocktail parties,” said Gantz.
“On the days when I commanded the Shaldag combat unit in life-threatening operations on enemy soil, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, worked your way bravely and determinedly between makeup sessions in television studios,” he said.
“While I trained generations of commanders and fighters, you took acting lessons in a New York studio. And during the many nights of tension and stress when I fell asleep for only a brief nap wearing my uniform and boots, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, met with some of the world's most respected business suit designers in fitting rooms, and then returned safely to your prestigious hotel.”
Gantz, 59, a retired lieutenant general whose political faction, according to various polls, is trailing far behind Netanyahu’s Likud party, was immediately condemned by Netanyahu, his family and his supporters.
His son, Yair, who has been heavily involved in his father’s election campaign, shared on Twitter a black and white photo of Netanyahu from his army days, his arm tied up in a sling, receiving a medal from the Israeli president.
“Gantz, you’re a joke and a sock puppet of your campaign advisors!” he wrote. “This photo shows my father receiving a medal of honor from the president after being shot and almost killed in the operation to release the Sabena airplane! Shame on you for talking about an officer in Sayeret Matkal commando unit who was almost killed during his service several times! Shame on you for talking about a bereaved brother!”
He referred to a 1972 Israeli commando operation that killed two Palestinian hijackers and captured two others who had commandeered a passenger flight of Belgium’s Sabena airline. Netanyahu was wounded by friendly fire during an assault on the plane at Tel Aviv airport.
Netanyahu, now 69, served for five years in an Israeli special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, completing his service in 1972, then rejoined briefly in 1973 to participate in the Yom Kippur War. He left the army with the rank of captain.
The Likud party also distributed to journalists an old photograph of Netanyahu in army fatigues and later a new video clip of the prime minister, this time defending himself:
“Benny Gantz, you should be ashamed,” Netanyahu said. “You attack me, a soldier and an officer in Sayeret Matkal, who commanded many operations beyond enemy lines, who was wounded in the operation to free the Sabena airplane from hijackers. I almost lost my life in a fire in the Suez Canal and I have risked my life time and time again for our country.”
He also defended his flawless spoken English, saying that it was a “primary tool in our propaganda war that has helped me to bring our foreign relations to an all-time high.”
Writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, commentator Nahum Barnea said Gantz had little choice but to push back against Netanyahu, who “has been making completely baseless attacks on him daily.”
“Experts on Netanyahu say that only a show of strength and unbridled attacks can stop him,” wrote Barnea.
Professor Dan Avnon, chair of the Department of Political Science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Gantz’s words were strategic and smart.
“Netanayhu and the right have attempted to frame Gantz as a good-looking nice guy who does not want to offend anyone,” he said. “The worse thing to say about a potential leader is that he’s good-looking because it is framed to imply that he is weak. Now Gantz, [who] served for years in the military and was chief of staff, has shown that he can attack. In the Israeli political system and in the Middle East, he needs to be known as someone who has boundaries, and if those boundaries are crossed, then the nice guy can also be a tough guy.”