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The silent Israeli general challenging Netanyahu in the election is silent no more

A campaign poster shows former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz in Jerusalem on Monday. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Despite running second, if distantly, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the polls ahead of national elections in April, Benny Gantz has remained an enigma to Israeli voters. Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israeli military, had barely uttered a sentence about his politics since forming a new political party a month ago.

That changed Tuesday night, when he took to the stage at a Tel Aviv convention center to launch his campaign for the Israel Resilience Party. 

Gantz, 59, sought to set himself above the increasingly polarized fray of Israeli politics, calling for unity despite the rifts between left and right, religious and secular, Jew and non-Jew. 

“There is nothing more precious in the world to me than the state of Israel,” Gantz said, timing his announcement to coincide with the high-rated evening television news shows. “For me, Israel really is before all. We are one nation. We share one flag, one anthem and one army.” 

Emphasizing his security credentials, he warned Israel’s enemies not to test him, while at the same time indicating he would be willing to forge peace with the Palestinians and countries in the region.

Gantz also referred to corruption allegations involving Netanyahu, saying, “The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me.” Israel’s attorney general is weighing whether to announce a possible indictment against the prime minister in connection with three corruption cases. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

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Gantz suggested that, after a decade in power, Netanyahu sees himself as royalty. “No Israeli leader is a king. The state is not me. The state is you. The state is actually us. The state is all of us,” Gantz said, recalling his roots growing up the son of Holocaust survivors in a small agricultural community in central southern Israel. 

Nicknamed “the prince,” Gantz has been described by those who know him as a mild-mannered pragmatist. His silence has appeared to serve him well, and polls show he is on track to win around 15 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament. That’s not close to the 30 that Netanyahu is expected to win. But if Gantz forms a political alliance with other contenders ahead of the vote, he could pose a threat to the prime minister, especially given the legal woes.

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At the rally, Gantz introduced the first of those partners — another former chief of staff, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, who once served as Netanyahu’s defense minister. Yaalon quit that post in 2017, saying that “extremist and dangerous forces” had taken over the Israeli leadership. 

There is also speculation that Gabi Ashkenazi, who headed the military before Gantz, will join the Israel Resilience Party.

Bringing in another general, however, could be risky, analysts say. In the past, generals have often proved to be ineffective political leaders, prompting some public skepticism about leaders from a military background, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“It’s an impediment that Mr. Gantz has to deal with,” Plesner said. “On the other hand, they do come with the most important credential for someone that aspires to national leadership, which is that they have confidence to debate and decide on security questions, which are still considered the most important questions.” 

Gantz’s initial support is also due to disarray in the center left of Israeli politics, Plesner said, adding that he may be able to build a base of support.

“Politics is very divisive,” he said. “There is a major rift between different sides of the political spectrum, much more than in the past. There is a craving for a kind of leadership that can bring us together, and for many Israelis, he represents that.” 

Analysts say Gantz has been careful not to define where he sits on that political spectrum. At his appearance Tuesday, he looked to be aiming toward the center. He showcased his history as a military leader and said he would strive for peace while maintaining security.

In one of his campaign videos, Gantz suggested he would be willing to compromise in pursuit of peace with the Palestinians. The clip shows Netanyahu and Yitzhak Rabin, another former chief of staff turned political leader, alongside Arab and Palestinian figures.

“Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change,” he said. “This is what the Israeli patriot Menachem Begin did, who signed a peace agreement with Egypt. This is what the Israeli patriot Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, did in the peace agreement with Jordan.”

But in what analysts have cast as an effort not to appear too left-wing in a country that has shifted right in recent years, other videos have presented a sharp contrast. One showed drone shots of the devastation during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. “Only the strong wins,” one video says.

Immediately after Gantz’s speech, Netanyahu took a shot at his rival, tweeting that “anyone who says he is not right and not left, is left.”

At the convention center, the reception to Gantz’s campaign kickoff was mixed among the crowd of friends, supporters and the curious.

Yaniv Eliraz, 30, a graduate student, said he had been drawn to the event by Gantz’s army credentials.

“When he spoke, he said everything I believed in,” he said.

Adi Peretz, 42, said he had come to the rally with high expectations but was not sure Gantz would get his vote. “I believe every citizen is looking for change and looking for a leader that can do that,” he said. “We need a leader that can bring together the left, the right, the religious, and make one piece that is stronger.”

Despite Gantz’s promises, Peretz said he felt he lacked some conviction, adding that generals in the past have not always proved they can navigate Israeli politics.

Gantz began his military service at age 18, rising rapidly through the ranks. After tours in Lebanon, the West Bank and northern Israel, Gantz was said to have been preparing to leave the military when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a former chief of staff, chose him for the army’s top spot. 

“It’s surprising he’s now opting to go into politics. He was never that ambitious,” said Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran military journalist and national security commentator for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. “But I believe he is driven by fear that this current government is leading the country to a very bad place. He is driven by the need to come and save Israel.”

Retired Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, who served as military spokesman to the foreign press under Gantz, described the general as a “quiet and thoughtful leader.”

“It’s true that there does not seem to be a trend today for that, and I don’t know if he can succeed in Israeli politics,” Lerner said. “But if you believe the polls, there does seem to be a sudden thirst for something else.”

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