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‘Thanks Bibi, we’ll take it from here’ — Benny Gantz issues electoral challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu

Former IDF general soars in opinion polls after throwing down the gauntlet to Israel's long-serving prime minister

    Benny Gantz, leader of the Israel Resilience Party, at his campaign launch on Tuesday
    Benny Gantz, leader of the Israel Resilience Party, at his campaign launch on Tuesday (Photo: Flash 90)

    Benny Gantz’s campaign team had two main challenges on Tuesday night: how to prepare their candidate for his first major appearance as a civilian running for election, and to what degree they should attack Benjamin Netanyahu.

    The first problem was overcome through a lot of discipline and rehearsal. Mr Gantz was known throughout his miliary career for being a “team-player” and someone who played by the rules.

    If anything, he is seen as having been too consensual and not enough of a maverick.

    His 30-minute maiden speech as a politician was well-delivered, and not too polished, reminding Israeli voters that he is a general after all.

    The second challenge was more difficult to overcome. To maintain the upward trajectory of his party, Israel Resilience, in the polls, Mr Gantz has to capture two very different constituencies.

    One is made up of centrist and centre-left voters yearning for an alternative to the current prime minister of 10 years. But then there are those voters from the soft-right, the wavering Likudniks, who voted for Mr Netanyahu in the past but may be convinced that his time is over.

    Mr Gantz needed both to criticise the country’s present leader while not offending his erstwhile supporters.

    The speechwriters’ solution was to mention the prime minister by name only twice.

    The first was in a list of prime ministers he termed “Israeli patriots” who had tried to make peace.

    He referred to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin —who had made peace with actual countries, Egypt and Jordan — but namechecked Mr Netanyahu for signing agreements with the “greatest of murderers, Yasser Arafat”.

    The second mention was as he signed off, thanking the prime minister for 10 years of service. He said: “We will take it from here.”

    But even when Mr Gantz was not mentioning him by name, Mr Netanyahu was present throughout long stretches of the speech — such as when he mentioned the “leadership focused on itself”, acting like “a royal family” complete with “court jesters”.

    Perhaps the most significant message of the evening was when Mr Gantz sought to quieten his critics who say he is aiming to be a senior minister in the next Netanyahu government.

    His own government, he said, would have “zero tolerance for any form of corruption”, adding: “The very idea that in Israel an indicted prime minister can serve is ridiculous in my eyes.”

    The Gantz team fully anticipated that Likud’s counter-campaign would be to try and brand the challenger as a “leftist”. So the speech was replete with tough warnings to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as a reminder of how the IDF had killed Hamas chief Ahmad Jabari, under then-General Gantz’s watch as chief of staff.

    Nor is he just taking the stage himself. The new party will be stacked with ex-Likudniks — including former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who joined Mr Gantz on stage at the end of his speech — in prominent spots on the candidates list.

    Will this be enough to seriously challenge Mr Netanyahu?

    In the latest polls, his Likud is still projected to take twice the votes of Israel Resilience.

    But the new party has only been around for a few weeks and is already beginning to break away from the rest of the pack, with a gap opening between it and the previous centrist sensation, Yesh Atid.

    It remains to be seen whether Mr Gantz can not only attract voters from his centrist rivals but also chip away at Likud’s base.

    He knows that if he doesn’t prise around 150,000 voters from Likud, Mr Netanyahu will win yet another election.

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