JERUSALEM (REUTERS) – Former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has emerged as the most serious and toughest rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli national election.
His newly-established party, Blue and White, has been running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Gantz, 59, is a popular former armed forces chief and a political newcomer.
He joined forces with the right-wing Moshe Yaalon, a former defence minister and the centre-left former finance minister Yair Lapid to form the new centrist Blue and White party.
Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israel’s security interests.
He has signalled he would make territorial concessions toward the Palestinians but has also sidestepped the question of Palestinian statehood.
In the wake of the Netanyahu corruption cases, Gantz has vowed clean government, while at the same time giving mixed signals over whether he would join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
His party Blue and White draws a lot of its support from the middle-class.
Likud has sought to write Gantz off as a “leftist”, casting him as an untested whimsy candidate and no match for Netanyahu, 69, who is also defense minister.
Appealing to hawkish voters, Gantz has taken a tough stance on Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Gaza. He also welcomed the controversial U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem which angered the Palestinians.
But mindful of Israeli moderates, Gantz also says he will pursue peace and “will not miss a chance to effect a regional change.”
Martin Dempsey, a retired U.S. army general whose tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mirrored that of Gantz as Israeli armed forces chief between 2011 and 2015, told Reuters he believed Gantz would bring “an open mind to change” and have the “instincts to build a team to solve the most urgent challenges”.
Israelis will go to the polls on April 9. Polls show that Netanyahu, seeking a fifth term in office, is best positioned in the tight race to emerge victorious and head the next government.
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