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Profile | Who is Benny Gantz, the new face in Israel Cabinet?

Benny Gantz, a relative neophyte in Israeli politics who vowed during three inconclusive elections not to serve under a criminally indicted Prime Minister, was sworn in on May 17 as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Deputy Premier. Under the deal he agreed in April, which supporters have derided as a betrayal of trust, the former Army Chief of Staff will swap roles after 18 months with the country’s longest-serving leader.

Mr. Netanyahu had previously resorted to a relentless smear campaign against his opponent, calling Mr. Gantz a traitor because he was willing to take the support of Israel’s Arab parties to dislodge him. The latter has, however, justified his U-turn in terms of having to save the country from COVID-19 and to avert a fourth general election.

‘The Prince’

Mr. Gantz is best remembered for the 2014 military campaign he spearheaded against Hamas. The son of Holocaust survivors, he was drafted to the Israeli Defence Forces in 1977. His rise through the military ranks was quick — he became a Brigadier General at 39 and Major General at 42. Soldiers called him “the Prince”.

In December 2018, three years after retiring as Chief of Staff, Mr. Gantz launched the Hosen L’Ýisrael, or Israel Resilience Party, pledging to enhance national security and the rule of law. Resilience merged with two other parties in February 2019, marking the beginning of the centrist Blue and White coalition, just weeks before the first of the three general elections that started in April.

In poll campaigns, Mr. Gantz channelled popular antipathy to Mr. Netanyahu’s record in office, exemplified by the attacks on the judiciary and investigation agencies in the wake of ongoing criminal in corruption cases. Last year, he supported the creation of a “contiguous Palestinian entity” on 65% of the West Bank and called for a freeze on building settlements outside the major settlement blocs.

No majority

Blue and White emerged the largest combine in the September election, but without a clear majority. During coalition talks after the March 2 election, Israel’s Arab parties, the Joint List, decided to back the alliance and held out hopes of harmony between the nation’s diverse religious communities. This momentum enabled Mr. Gantz to rally support among smaller opposition parties to legislate term limits for the Prime Minister — Mr. Netanyahu is now serving a fourth consecutive term. Another measure Mr. Gantz proposed sought to strip indicted politicians of eligibility to run for high office. All of these have, for the moment, been put on ice.

In an evident acknowledgement of his growing strength, President Reuven Rivlin invited Mr. Gantz to form the government. In a bid to kick-start the new legislature, the latter secured a judicial injunction in late March to expedite the election of the Knesset Speaker. The process was nonetheless circumvented, as the incumbent resigned his post, rather than heed the court’s ruling to hold an election to choose his successor.

In a dramatic about-turn in 24 hours, Mr. Gantz nominated himself as the Speaker and announced his backing for the so-called unity government with his arch-rival. Commentators ascribe the abrupt shift to the resistance within Blue and White legislative factions to cohabiting with the Arab parties, forcing Mr. Gantz to either collaborate with Mr. Netanyahu or risk a fourth election.

West Bank settlements

Crucially, Israel’s highly contentious proposal to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank is the only aspect, besides the response to the pandemic, where the coalition deal gives Mr. Netanyahu a free hand. The Joint List and Israel’s traditional left supporters have criticised such a stance as complete capitulation on the part of Mr. Gantz.

It perhaps also explains his silence right through his electoral campaigns on statehood for the Palestinians. More broadly, it points to the limitations of the catch-all appeal of the party and Mr. Gantz’s political approach, given Israel’s highly fragmented polity.

It may hence prove especially hard for him to resurrect his reputation as a rallying force for the country’s opposition. Such an opportunity may yet arise when the courts pronounce on Mr. Netanyahu’s criminal trials in the coming months.

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