Is Benny Gantz a ‘centrist’ challenging Netanyahu for power in Israel?

Gantz is branded a centrist and possible replacement for Netanyahu, but experts say there are similarities between them.

In his 2019 campaign for the Israeli parliament, Benny Gantz – the man many see as a likely successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – put out a video to show Israelis where he stood on crucial policy issues.

Black-and-white images of destruction in Gaza from a campaign he oversaw while he was army chief of staff ran along with claims of sending the Palestinian enclave “back to the Stone Age”.

“This was his entrance into Israeli politics,” Eyal Lurie-Paredes, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s just to give you an idea of how he thinks about human rights and Palestinians.”

Heir apparent?

The popularity of Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, is tanking while Gantz, who has been branded a centrist, is seen by many Israelis as a figure of reason.

Netanyahu is in trouble.

The prime minister is on trial for corruption, thousands are protesting against his far-right government’s rule, and he is blamed for failing to stop the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7.

On the flip side, thousands of far-right Israelis – including some from Netanyahu’s government – do not think he has gone far enough in Gaza and are equally unhappy.

Internationally, Netanyahu has frustrated his closest allies, most notably US President Joe Biden.

And for those – both domestic and foreign – looking for an alternative, Gantz is an attractive proposition.

After October 7, Gantz moved out of the opposition and joined a national unity government, then joined a three-man war cabinet to lead Israel’s assault on Gaza, with Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

A retired army general, Gantz added experience to the cabinet and was a counterweight to far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

While not part of the war cabinet, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are vital members of Netanyahu’s coalition government and have hardline views on Gaza, opposing any deal that would end a war in which Israel has now killed more than 35,000 Palestinians.

But while Gantz might not hold some of those maximalist positions, the description of him as a “centrist” needs to be understood within the Israeli context, which has shifted firmly to the right – if not the far-right – this century.

“Gantz is a centrist figure in a political [scene] that went so right wing it is even hard to recognise it any more,” Laurie-Paredes said.

“The Likud party, which has historically been a classic centre-right party, has gone so right-wing that the centre in Israel has changed.”

And while he may be a better interlocutor with the international community, analysts say Gantz would not necessarily change Netanyahu’s policies towards the rights of Palestinians, which had led to a record number of killings of Palestinians and the entrenchment of the occupation in the West Bank, even before October 7.

Palestinians grieve the death of Amir Abu Amireh, who was killed in a military raid on Jenin, West Bank.
Palestinians look at the body of Amir Abu Amireh, killed by the Israeli military in the Jenin refugee camp, on May 21, 2024 [Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

“It is important to emphasise that on many issues … Gantz and Netanyahu do not differ that much from each other,” Lurie-Paredes said.

Like Netanyahu, Gantz’s track record in government – leading two wars on Gaza and designating Palestinian human rights organisations as “terrorist” groups – shows that he is unlikely to improve the situation for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or change the violent reality of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Analysts also say there is little divergence between Netanyahu and Gantz’s Gaza strategies.

If Gantz had been in charge of the response to October 7, the expectation that he would have acted any differently than Netanyahu “would be a false estimate”, Laurie-Paredes said. “Especially in the first two months of the war.”

‘A very lucky person’

Gantz was born in 1959 in Kfar Ahim, a moshav or agricultural settlement established by Holocaust survivors on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Qastina. His parents were among the early settlers.

He enlisted in the military in 1977, joining the Paratroopers Brigade, launching a long military career that coincided with many of the most tumultuous periods of Israel’s history.

He became commander of the Israeli army’s ground forces a year before Israel launched a devastating war on Lebanon in 2006, in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

His time in Lebanon, and before that in the West Bank, was not particularly successful from a military and security standpoint. Still, it did not stop his meteoric rise.

“There’s a lot of stories of him being a very lucky person,” Lurie-Paredes said. But “he was never someone that was considered to be a strong leader.”

In 2007, Gantz was appointed military attache at Israel’s embassy to the United States, before returning to Israel in 2009 as the military’s deputy chief of staff.

He was then promoted to chief of staff in 2011.

In that role, Gantz oversaw two wars against Gaza, in 2012 and 2014. The Israeli army killed 167 Palestinians, including at least 87 civilians, during the first war, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, and more than 2,000 Palestinians (including more than 500 children) during the second, according to Amnesty International.

Human rights organisations documented multiple human rights violations during both military campaigns.

At the end of 2018, Gantz formed a political party, Israel Resilience, which joined the anti-Netanyahu Blue and White alliance to run in the April 2019 elections.

Then came Gantz’s campaign video proudly proclaiming parts of Gaza were “sent back to the Stone Age”. But it was not enough to initially sweep him to power.

A divided Israeli electorate led to three elections in the space of a year, eventually leading to a May 2020 deal between Gantz and Netanyahu, and a coalition government in which the former general became defence minister and a promise that Netanyahu would hand over the premiership in October 2021.

Netanyahu, right, speaks with Israeli army chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz in Haifa on September  11, 2013 [Dan Balilty/AP Photo]

It wasn’t to last, with the government collapsing in early 2021, and a new election seeing Netanyahu voted out of power – but Gantz’s party’s support also collapsing.

His time as defence minister was deadly for Palestinians.

Gantz oversaw two further wars on Gaza, in May 2021 and August 2023. More than 300 people were killed, including at least 130 civilians, 17 of whom were children.

And in the occupied West Bank, dozens of Palestinians were killed during the period.

“This record of violence is widely glossed over by many observers, who once saw Gantz as a worthy contender to replace Netanyahu as prime minister,” Palestinian analyst Amjad Iraqi wrote in +972 magazine.

“[T]he general-turned-politician has tried to craft an image of himself as a statesman … It is a posture that has worked well for many Israeli voters and foreign dignitaries, with some even hailing Gantz as a ‘centrist’ counterweight to more far-right parties.”

Gantz makes his move

Calls for Gantz to replace Netanyahu have ebbed and flowed in recent months.

Many Israelis see Gantz as the best hope of returning the remaining Israeli captives taken by Palestinian armed groups during their attack on October 7, something that Netanyahu has refused to do.

In March, Gantz took a trip to Washington, DC, prompting analysts to point out that US frustrations with Netanyahu might play in Gantz’s favour.

“Since its first days, the Biden administration has considered Benny Gantz as their major ally in Israeli politics,” Tamir Sorek, a professor of history who studies conflict and resistance at Penn State University, told Al Jazeera at the time.

But the trip came and went without a major shake-up in the Israeli government, nor did Gantz make any power moves.

Gantz, Sorek told Al Jazeera, does not have much clout in Israel because “Netanyahu does not need him for his coalition, so he does not have the same leverage as the extreme right parties have”.

On May 19, however, Gantz made his boldest play yet.

In a widely publicised speech, Gantz said Israel was “heading for the rocks” led by a group of “zealots” and laid the blame at Netanyahu’s feet.

He gave the government a deadline of June 8 to meet six specific goals, including bringing home the Hamas-held hostages, returning Israelis to their homes in north Israel, and gaining security control of the Gaza Strip.

If not, he threatened, his party would leave the government.

But Gantz’s luck may have finally reached its limit.

“Although his party is still the biggest party in the polls, he doesn’t really have a political bloc to form a coalition,” Laurie-Paredes said, indicating that Netanyahu could possibly survive Gantz’s departure.

“What we have seen is that Netanyahu has managed to bounce back just strong enough [to form a veto bloc].”

Source: Al Jazeera