- Title: "The Prince" vs "King Bibi": Israeli ex-general Gantz aims high
- Date: 23rd October 2019
- Summary: JERUSALEM (FILE - FEBRUARY 14, 2011) (REUTERS) BENNY GANTZ AT CEREMONY HONOURING HIM WITH NEW RANK AS HE IS APPOINTED ISRAELI ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU AND THEN DEFENCE MINISTER EHUD BARAK HONOURING GANTZ WITH NEW RANK
- Embargoed: 6th November 2019 11:23
- Keywords: Israel election Benny Gantz former army chief of staff Netanyahu's strongest challenger profile
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- Country: Israel
- Topics: Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA001B2CF2VB
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: THIS EDIT CONTAINS VIDEO WHICH WAS ORIGINALLY 4:3
Ex-general Benny Gantz is due on Wednesday (October 23) to be tasked with trying to form Israel's next government thus threatening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's record reign.
As chief of the Israeli military between 2011 and 2015, Gantz was a consensus figure - having headed the institution in which most citizens have served as conscripts, making it a core, cohesive part of the identity of a country perennially at war.
Gantz, 60, has tried to retain that broad appeal as head of Blue and White, a newly formed, custom-made centrist party named after the national colours.
That meant holding fire as Netanyahu's conservative Likud launched ad hominem attacks on him in two elections this year.
But it has also meant skirting political minefields like the question of whether or not he supports Palestinian statehood - opening him up to criticism from those who accuse him of indecision and ideological emptiness.
"Left, Right, Left!" mocked one unfriendly newspaper headline after Gantz made his debut political speech in January.
Supporters see in Gantz's reticence a good-faith bid to calm an Israeli political scene that is both frenzied and deadlocked. They argue that he prefers to keep his own counsel rather than sap his credibility with vain promises that voters know will never be delivered.
As top general, Gantz orchestrated two Gaza wars in which around 2,300 Palestinians died. While a spokesperson for Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamists said he "Doesn't differentiate between either Gantz or Netanyahu,", the more moderate Palestinian Authority has said it is open to talking to any Israeli leader.
The question remains whether Gantz's experience within the armed forces hierarchy prepared him for the hurly burly of Israel's fractured civilian society. A foray into private business, at the head of a homeland security tech company, ended with its collapse.
With little cause to distinguish himself policy-wise from Netanyahu - once crowned "King Bibi" by Time magazine for his four terms in top office - Gantz has seemed content to let the contest boil down to personal style and moral character.
Throughout the electioneering he repeatedly and trenchantly attacked Netanyahu over corruption allegations that have dogged the veteran prime minister for years, and which he vigorously denies. Netanyahu's counter-charge that a suspected Iranian hack of Gantz's cellphone may have opened him up to blackmail by Israel's arch-foe did not appear to dent the challenger's image.
The thrice-married Netanyahu is himself no stranger to scandal on the home-front. Gantz wed a former soldier in his paratrooper regiment, but says he struck up the romance only after she was discharged. Still together, they have four children.
Gantz also enjoys a significant height and age advantage over Netanyahu - ten years younger and more than two inches (0.06m) taller.
Where Netanyahu is a bookish workhorse, Gantz is fond of folk singing and jaunts on his Harley Davidson. Where Netanyahu's oratory is slick and Americanised, Gantz's is more earthy, with occasional scriptural word-play - nods to his upbringing on a collective farm founded by Holocaust survivors including his parents, and a stint in a religious school.
He is given to reminding listeners of his military background at key moments. On the night that his party won more seats than Netanyahu his victory address spoke of having fulfilled his "mission" - and of Netanyahu having failed in his.
Netanyahu has cast Gantz as a "weak leftist" who was gunshy on Iran and the Palestinians while in uniform.
That has arguably been a hard sell, given that it was the incumbent who appointed Gantz as top general and, at the time, praised him as "an officer and a gentleman ... a warrior and a human being".
But Gantz was a default choice, after Netanyahu's first pick was cashiered by a property scandal. Gantz's earlier military career was similarly starred, though he was nicknamed "The Prince" - either for his assured rise through the ranks or, less charitable observers say, for his sense of entitlement.
As brigadier-general in 1999, he took over a liaison unit to Lebanese allies after the previous commander was assassinated by Hezbollah guerrillas. By the following year, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, Gantz was a media darling.
He went on to serve a relatively short period in the occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian revolt raged. Gantz later commanded forces on the Lebanese border but was reassigned before the inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, and was thus spared much of the after-action blowback from an Israeli inquest.
"That's Benny's greatness - the permanent teflon," Gadi Meiri, a former colonel who served under Gantz, said wryly to Israel's Channel 13 television.
Gantz has brushed off such remarks, as well as suggestions he lacks the stomach to fight.
"The heads of the terrorist groups need to know that Ahmed Jaabari was not the first, nor may he be the last," he said in his January speech, referring to a Hamas military commander whom he ordered assassinated in 2012, triggering an 8-day Gaza war.
Retired U.S. general Martin Dempsey, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2011 and 2015 was Gantz's counterpart, recalled him as a "superb leader" in that role.
"I've seen Benny interact with his staff, with his senior officers and with the lowest ranking soldiers," Dempsey told Reuters in January. "As a result they have performed brilliantly when asked to do the toughest and most dangerous jobs."
Gantz has made no secret of learning on the job, and is leaning on the collective experience of his partners in the Blue and White leadership, who include two other former chiefs of staff, a former defence minister and a former finance minister.
Gantz also lacks a pedigree in foreign affairs. But, as one serving Israeli official quipped, he may have the basic attributes necessary to make a good first impression on U.S. President Donald Trump, at least: "He's tall, and he's a general."
(Production: Eli Berlzon, Rami Amichay, Dedi Hayun, Lee Marzel)
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