Who is Benny Gantz? The former military chief could be Israel's next prime minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise unity government offer to his rival Benny Gantz after failing to win a majority in Tuesday's election.
Former military chief Benny Gantz has indicated he is open to a unity government - as long as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't at the helm.
Former military chief Benny Gantz has indicated he is open to a unity government - as long as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't at the helm.PHOTO: AFP

TEL AVIV (WASHINGTON POST) - With a parliamentary election producing a deadlock, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the prospect of an electoral defeat for the first time in more than a decade.

In an effort to preserve his power, he has called for a unity government with his opponent, Mr Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White alliance.

Mr Gantz, a 60-year-old former military chief with no prior political experience, has indicated he is open to a unity government - as long as Mr Netanyahu isn't at the helm.

With Mr Netanyahu politically weakened and facing criminal indictment in three separate corruption cases, Mr Gantz has emerged as a strong candidate to be Israel's next leader.

After running a nine-month-long campaign against the country's longest-serving prime minister and dealing a crushing blow to Mr Netanyahu's legacy, experts say Mr Gantz has positioned himself as the antithesis to Mr Netanyahu's savvy, sometimes cutting political style.

"He's like the un-Netanyahu," said Mr David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr Gantz's low-key, steady demeanour makes people "see him as a person of integrity and country first", Mr Makovsky added.

Born in southern Israel to Holocaust survivors, Mr Gantz entered the armed forces in 1977 at age 18 and steadily climbed the ranks in a military career that spanned 38 years and is peppered with milestones.

In 1989, as commander of an elite unit of the Israeli Air Force, he oversaw an operation that airlifted 14,500 Ethiopian Jews vulnerable to persecution to Israel.

A decade later, he served as the commander of Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon and then oversaw the country's withdrawal from the region.

 
 
 
 

He became the military's chief of staff in 2011. While in the job, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) fought two wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, for which the government and Mr Gantz have faced international criticism.

A United Nations report published in 2015 found that Israel and Palestinian militant groups likely committed war crimes in the 2014 conflict, which left 2,251 Palestinians dead, 65 per cent of whom were civilians.

Mr Gantz has embraced his past tenure. In January, he ran a campaign ad taking credit for the 1,364 people the IDF says it killed in the 2014 war.

After he retired from the armed forces in 2015, Mr Gantz spent a couple of years in the business world before turning his attention to vying for the top job in Israeli politics.

In December 2018, Mr Gantz announced the formation of a new party called Israel Resilience, which espoused policies that emphasised education and national security. In February, he joined forces with another centrist group to form the Blue and White party.

Blue and White's platform makes its domestic stances clear. It calls for limited public transportation on Shabbat, a longer school day to help parents who work full time and a term limit for the position of prime minister (a potential dig at Mr Netanyahu, whom Mr Gantz has criticised for staying in power for too long).

But Mr Gantz and been less forthcoming on polarising issues like the decades-old, intractable conflict with the Palestinians.

While the former military chief has called for forging peace with Palestinians, he has declined to outright endorse a two-state solution that would form an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Analysts say that vagueness could be his attempt to siphon supporters from Mr Netanyahu's camp who are not as right-wing.

"He reflects the defence establishment view that Israel needs to find ways for accommodation with the Palestinians when it comes to the West Bank and Gaza," Mr Makovsky said of Mr Gantz.

While Mr Netanyahu has called for the annexation of more territories in the occupied West Bank, experts say Mr Gantz would likely not pursue that kind of expansion.

Mr Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an Israeli think tank said that under Mr Gantz, "notions of unilateral annexation will be off the table".

He added, however, that Mr Gantz might be expected to "play along" with any kind of peace plan put forth by the Trump administration.

Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner held a June summit on the matter in Bahrain that was seen as unproductive given Palestinian and Israeli officials were not in attendance.

Now that the voting is over, questions remain over whether the seasoned military veteran can weather the turbulence of Israeli politics in the coalition-building process.

Mr Plesner said that while he's a political novice, his ascension despite a short time on the scene has proven he may be something of a natural.

"Less than a year ago, he was completely a non-factor in the political system and now he's a few steps away from entering the prime minister's office," Mr Plesner said.