Benny Gantz: The former Israeli army chief who could replace Netanyahu

As international pressure grows to revive the two-state solution, Gantz is seen to be more flexible than Netanyahu on the issue

Gantz received red carpet treatment in the US and UK as Netanyahu's popularity both inside and outside of Israel is at an all-time low.
Peter Csuth
Gantz received red carpet treatment in the US and UK as Netanyahu's popularity both inside and outside of Israel is at an all-time low.

Benny Gantz: The former Israeli army chief who could replace Netanyahu

At a time when Israel is facing international pressure over its relentless military offensive in Gaza, the emergence of former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz as a key spokesman for Israel’s war cabinet suggests that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces significant internal challenges over his handling of the Gaza conflict.

While Netanyahu retains ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the war, he nevertheless needs to maintain the backing of the emergency war cabinet he appointed soon after Hamas launched its devastating attack against Israel on 7 October last year.

Although the Israeli premier relies on the most right-wing coalition government in Israel’s history to remain in power, he invited Gantz—a senior opposition figure and former defence minister—to join his war cabinet in an attempt to demonstrate that politicians of all persuasions supported his uncompromising military response to the attack.

Indeed, in his first public comments after joining the war cabinet, Gantz echoed Netanyahu’s hardline approach to dealing with Hamas, telling Israeli citizens that the newly formed war cabinet was “united” and ready to “wipe this thing called Hamas off the face of the earth.”

Netanyahu's growing unpopularity

Yet, while the Israeli coalition has so far managed to survive the many political challenges, tensions have nevertheless arisen over Netanyahu’s handling of the war, as has been demonstrated by Gantz’s recent shuttle mission around Western capitals, which was undertaken without the Israeli premier’s approval.

If an election were held in Israel now, Gantz's party would win 39 seats, with Netanyahu securing just 17.

Gantz's visit to Washington and London this month infuriated Netanyahu, who claimed he had not been consulted about the trips.  Afterwards, he made a stopover in London. Neither visit was organised by the Israeli embassy or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The visit has certainly been seen as reflecting the growing frustration of US President Joe Biden and the British government with Netanyahu over his unwillingness to allow more aid into Gaza.

They are also unhappy with his stalling tactics over international attempts to arrange a ceasefire and his refusal to back Western plans for the future administration of Gaza if an extended ceasefire can be agreed upon.

Netanyahu's growing unpopularity on the world stage, moreover, is also a growing factor in Israel, where a recent Channel 13 poll showed that this had resulted in Gantz, who is also the chair of Israel's left-of-centre National Unity Party, enjoying a significant boost in his ratings.

If an election were held in Israel now, Gantz's party would win 39 seats, with Netanyahu securing just 17. Such an outcome would put Gantz in a strong position to form the next Israeli government.

The prospect of Gantz emerging as a possible alternative leader to the hardline Netanyahu was certainly not lost on his hosts in Washington and London.

Red carpet treatment

In the US, he was given the red-carpet treatment and granted meetings with the vice president, Kamala Harris, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

Benny Gantz, center, a key member of Israel's War Cabinet and the top political rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaves after a meeting at the State Department on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Washington.

In London, meanwhile, the importance of Gantz's visit resulted in British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak joining a meeting with the UK's national security advisor, Sir Tim Barrow, during which British officials stressed the importance of Israel fulfilling its international humanitarian obligations as the occupying power in Gaza to ensure sufficient quantities of aid were delivered to starving Palestinian civilians.

In return, Gantz "thanked the UK for its efforts on behalf of Israel's security and stressed the importance of continued international pressure on Hamas to secure the release of the hostages," his office said.

Gantz also reiterated Israel's position that Israel remains committed to dismantling Hamas and would do so consistent with international law, suggesting that, for all his political differences with Netanyahu, he remains fully committed to the Israeli army's declared aim of achieving "total victory" over Hamas in Gaza.

The high-profile trip undertaken by the 64-year-old Gantz certainly raises the intriguing prospect that, if Netanyahu were to be removed from office, the Israeli government might adopt a more nuanced approach to the challenging issue of Palestinian statehood.

While Gantz has been as adamant as any other leader in Israel that the war can only end when Hamas is destroyed, he is far more open to dialogue with the Palestinians than Netanyahu and his allies from the settler movement like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Despite the international alarm at the mounting death toll in Gaza, he is unlikely to deviate from the government's path of continuing the war until final victory.

But as US and international pressure grows for a revival of efforts to reach a two-state solution, Gantz's willingness to think about a political end to the conflict has brought the divisions within Israel's war cabinet more clearly into focus.

As international pressure grows to revive the two-state solution, Gantz is seen to be more flexible than Netanyahu on the issue.

Strained relations

Gantz's meetings with Harris and Blinken this week have certainly caused a storm in Israel, highlighting the fact that, because Netanyahu's relations with US President Joe Biden are so strained that, more than a year after taking office, the Israeli premier has still not received an invitation to visit Washington.

US media have even reported that Netanyahu had forbidden Israel's ambassador to the United States from supporting Gantz's visit.

Netanyahu is under increasing pressure from disaffected Israelis who, while supporting the military effort to destroy Hamas, blame him for the security failures that allowed the 7 October attack that killed some 1,200 people.

The surveys that show Gantz's National Unity Party a clear favourite to win the next election reflect the view held by many Israeli voters that Netanyahu's main motivation for continuing the war is his own political survival.

By contrast, Gantz, who had a lengthy and distinguished military career before entering politics, has clashed frequently with his partners on the far right.

Military career

A former paratrooper who commanded the elite Shaldag commando unit, Gantz rose to become army chief of staff in 2012, where he oversaw an eight day-operation in the Gaza Strip that began with the killing of the chief of Hamas' military wing in Gaza.

That conflict was part of a series of limited confrontations between Israel and Hamas that have defined Israel's relations with the Palestinians ever since the Islamist movement took power in Gaza after a brief factional war in 2007.

However, the war that began on 7 October is on a different scale from the operations Gantz conducted. Israel has responded with a bombing campaign that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, drawing increasing alarm even from firm allies like the US.

Five months into the conflict, attention has increasingly turned to the situation that will follow the war's end, making Gantz's belief in a political solution a more palatable option for the Biden administration.

Born in 1959 in Kfar Ahim, a cooperative farmers' village in central Israel founded by immigrants, Gantz's father and mother, Nahum and Malka, were survivors of the Holocaust.

As a youth, Gantz attended a boarding school in a youth village near Tel Aviv. After finishing school in 1977, he enlisted in the Israeli army and joined the Paratroopers Brigade.

A veteran of the 1982 Lebanon War, he participated in Operation Solomon, the covert airlift that rescued Ethiopian Jews in 1991. A decorated soldier, during his time as Army chief, he oversaw Operation Pillar of Defence and Operation Protective Edge, both against Hamas forces in Gaza.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes during the conflict. But Gantz insisted his forces had worked hard to prevent civilian casualties and blamed Hamas for embedding military infrastructure in residential areas.

When Gantz's military career ended in 2015, Netanyahu praised his decades of "excellent service" and described him as "a high-quality, ethical, responsible, balanced, and thoughtful chief of staff."

Four years later, Netanyahu paid no such compliments to the man who had become his main rival for the premiership, dismissing him as a "weak leftist".

He was appointed deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army as a compromise candidate because the then chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak vetoed each other's candidate for the job.

Despite he lacks the vaulting ambition as a politician, Gantz's greatest electoral quality seems to be that he is seen as a responsible man in contrast to the mercurial Netanyahu. His biggest stumbling bloc today is how to untangle the political complexities created by Netanyhau's handling of the Gaza war.  

And when that happens, Benny Gantz is well-positioned to become Israel's next prime minister.

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