Ex-Israeli army chief launches campaign to replace Netanyahu

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Retired Israeli military chief Benny Gantz launched his long-awaited political campaign yesterday, seeking to position himself as the first serious challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade-long rule.

Flaunting a tough military pedigree, Gantz’s emergence in the polls as Netanyahu’s top rival highlights how security rules supreme in the minds of most Israeli voters. Straight out of central casting, the tall, telegenic ex-general with salty hair is still untarnished by partisan politics and has been riding a wave of popularity, even while saying little and presenting a vague ideological platform.

But the shine could quickly wear off following yesterday’s speech, when he was expected to finally lay out his agenda. Netanyahu’s allies are sure to brand Gantz as a “leftist” should he show any signs of moderation.

Even before the speech, Netanyahu supporters were taking aim at Gantz, trying to dig up dirt on his family, questioning his record and taunting his sparse speaking appearances.

“Benny Gantz is silent. I think I know why he is silent. Thousands of officers who served under him also know why he is silent,” said Yoav Galant, a retired general from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and a former rival of Gantz’s in the army. “When you have nothing to say, you don’t speak.”

Then Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in this January 8, 2015 file photo. – AP

For many voters weary of Netanyahu’s long rule, Gantz’s fresh face is enough of a draw, regardless of what he might say in yesterday evening’s nationally televised speech.

Most polls show Gantz’s new party, “Israel Resilience,” coming in second to Netanyahu’s Likud in a crowded field of contenders in the April 9 vote. A second-place finish would position Gantz for either a top Cabinet post in a Netanyahu-led coalition or to be a high-profile opposition leader.

Perhaps even more importantly, some polls have him almost even with Netanyahu as far as fitness to be prime minister. None of Netanyahu’s many other would-be challengers come close.

Like most senior retired security officials, Gantz is believed to hold moderate positions toward the Palestinians. That would set him apart from Netanyahu. But Gantz has been cagey about voicing his opinions, apparently wary of alienating conservative voters.

In one of the few political ads he has put out, he stressed how as military chief he pummelled Hamas militants in the 2014 Gaza war.

Against aerial images of flattened Gaza neighbourhoods and with ominous music in the background, the ad declares, “Hamas suffers blow after blow, 6,231 targets destroyed, 1,364 terrorists killed, 3.5 years of quiet, only the strong prevail.”

The ad makes no mention of the more than 1,400 civilians killed, according to a blistering UN report that questioned Israeli policies in the war, including the destruction of entire neighbourhoods, and said war crimes might have been committed.