190920 shariff
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata @ Gulf News

The second Israeli general election this year has left the country’s politics deadlocked (and the threat of a third looms over the horizon). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz are now battling over the terms of a unity government. Both men want to lead it. But it appears that Netanyahu’s long hold over the premiership of the Israeli regime is coming to an end. As things stand, Gantz has a better chance of forming the next government. Netanyahu on Thursday asked Gantz to join him a unity government but he has insisted he will not enter an alliance with Netanyahu.

Gantz is a former chief of staff. In Israel, there is a tradition of army leaders running in elections; a testament perhaps to the militaristic disposition of the electorate that increasingly seems to prefer the use of brute force over negotiations when it comes to dealing with the central question in Israel: its half a century long military occupation of Palestine. Two of Gantz’s predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, became prime ministers.

Gantz was born in a kibbutz in 1959, the son of eastern European Jews. He joined the regime’s army in 1977; his first major operation was providing security during Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s controversial visit to Israel in 1977.

Among factors that could decide if Gantz forms the next government, assuming a partnership with Netanyahu does not materialise, is whether he gets a nod from a party list that represents the Palestinians of the 1948 areas

- Omar Shariff

A veteran of the 1982 Israeli war on Lebanon War (which killed tens of thousands of Lebanese), Gantz was also the senior most officer of the regime towards the end of its occupation of South Lebanon. He boasted that he was the “last officer” in Lebanon, and shut the gate after the last of the occupation troops pulled out in 2000. From 2011 to February 2015, Gantz served as the chief of staff.

War crimes

Gantz was the chief of staff at a time when the regime committed some of its worst human rights violations, by launching two devastating wars on the besieged Gaza trip, in 2012 and 2014. Again, in an indication of just how right-wing the Israeli electorate has become, Gantz’s campaign released a short clip showing a neighbourhood in Gaza flattened by the regime’s relentless aerial bombardment in 2014. In the video, the text read: “Only the strong wins”. It went on to claim that Israel killed more than 1,364 “terrorists”. A United Nations inquiry found that close to 2,300 Palestinians were killed, a vast majority of them civilians, with the remainder belonging to Hamas.

Indeed, as Israelis voted on Tuesday, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six relatives (including his mother) to Israeli war crimes in Gaza in 2014 sought war crimes damages against Gantz at The Hague. Gantz fired back defiantly that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”.

Foreign policy

Since he has no political experience and few concrete policies, Gantz has hedged his bets on appealing to the public on one important factor: that he is not Netanyahu. This is a measure of the public fatigue with the current bombastic and racist leader in Israel.

Yet, so unclear are Gantz’s policies that when Israel’s Haaretz newspaper called Gantz’s sister to ask what they were, she told the daily that she didn’t know what his political views are. Netanyahu has mocked Gantz for his lack of political and foreign policy experience while the former chief of staff has cast himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopping short of any commitment to the statehood they seek.

More on Gantz

Where Netanyahu envisages annexing the Jordan Valley, part of occupied West Bank land, Gantz has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the strategic corridor. To his Israeli critics, that kind of haziness shows indecisiveness and lack of principle. “You know I’m not strong with words,” Gantz acknowledged at a conference earlier this month. “I say honestly — I’m not a politician. A leader? I hope that (I am that), yes.”

Unity government

To Netanyahu’s appeal for setting up a unity government, the former military chief read out a statement saying, “Blue and White, headed by me, has won the election and we will not be dictated to. In order to form a unity government, we must not come with political blocs and spinning, but rather with honestly, patriotism, responsibility and seriousness.”

Among factors that could decide if Gantz forms the next government, assuming a partnership with Netanyahu does not materialise, is whether he gets a nod from a party list that represents the Palestinians of the 1948 areas. While some Palestinian politicians in Israel have voiced misgivings about Gantz’s record in uniform, others have hinted they may grudgingly back him as an antidote to Netanyahu.

And the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have not ruled Gantz out as peace partner. “We do respect (the) democratic outcome of elections in Israel. Whoever will form the government — we are ready to sit with him or her to restart the negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki said at a news conference in Oslo on Wednesday.

— With inputs from Reuters