Israeli foreign policy unlikely to change under Netanyahu’s challenger

Gantz is a fresh face and, after the long tenure of Netanyahu, he is attractive to some voters just because of that.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz (C) mingles with people during an electoral campaign tour south of Tel Aviv, February 1. (AFP)
Neither right nor left. Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz (C) mingles with people during an electoral campaign tour south of Tel Aviv, February 1. (AFP)

Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israel Defence Forces, opened his campaign for prime minister January 29 with a speech setting out his programme.

Gantz was swiftly denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a “leftist” but there is no sign of that in what is known of Gantz and for good reason.

The Israeli left dominated government from the birth of the state until the late 1970s and then returned in the 1990s, making the Oslo Accords its signature policy. The resulting peace offers to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000 and 2001 resulted in a war that killed 1,000 Israelis.

As the second intifada wound down in 2004, the Palestinians were no closer to a homeland, Arafat was dead and so was the Israeli left, which was perceived to have endangered the state with its naivety. Since then, Israelis have prioritised security and been averse to taking risks for peace. Indeed, support for peace in a conventional sense — the two-state solution — is fading on both sides.

This is the political environment in which Gantz is trying to unseat Netanyahu. It is, therefore, no surprise Gantz is tacking to the right and Netanyahu is trying to tie him to the left.

Gantz enters the fray with a couple of small advantages. First, he is a military man, an automatic degree of credibility in a society in which the military and intelligence services have an exalted status because of their role in protecting a country long imperilled and under siege.

Second, he is untainted by the raucous partisan fighting of Israeli politics.

Third and related, Gantz is a fresh face and, after the long tenure of Netanyahu, he is attractive to some voters just because of that.

Gantz opened his speech by appealing to that advantage. “Politics is ugly and the public arena has become poisoned,” he said. It was on the domestic front that Gantz drew major distinctions with Netanyahu.

The right-left and secular-Orthodox struggle “rips us apart” and Netanyahu exploits it, said Gantz, who pledged to abandon divisiveness and work with all communities, including marginalised groups and ethnic minorities, to create a “united, unified, cohesive society.”

Gantz appealed to Israel’s strong egalitarian ethos by attacking Netanyahu’s pretentious presidential style, saying his approach would be that of “a national government and not a monarchy.”

Netanyahu’s “incitement against the judicial, cultural and media institutions” was denounced. Gantz promised a “moral government” that would “show zero tolerance for corruption of any kind.”

Corruption is a very powerful issue in Israel and not just because Netanyahu is under indictment for it. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, there has been a rapid expansion of the black market, particularly in sectors such as technology. Gantz, however, has questions tainting him on this matter.

Gantz’s security-technology start-up, Fifth Dimension, had to shut down last year when its lead funder, Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, was hit with US sanctions. The influence of Kremlin-linked figures over Israeli politics has grown since the 1990s alongside the Russian Jewish population.

At the time Fifth Dimension went bust it was in the process of being sold to NSO Group, the controversial software company accused of helping regional dictatorships spy on dissidents.

Turning to foreign policy, the only possible distinction was that Gantz hinted at moves to Netanyahu’s right.

Speaking directly to Iran’s leaders, Gantz said: “I will thwart your plots in the north [through Hezbollah in Lebanon], south [in Gaza] and anywhere else in the Middle East.” Gantz added: “The regional rampage has ended.”

On the Palestinian territories, Gantz attacked the “payment of protection cash in suitcases to murderous gangs” — a reference to Netanyahu facilitating Qatar’s funding of Hamas — and hinted at a return to targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders. Gantz voiced support for the policy of outreach to Arab and African governments in lieu of a Palestinian settlement.

Gantz said he would “strive for peace” but would not wait on it. He will work to “shape a new reality.”

“We will strengthen the settlement blocs and the Golan Heights, from which we will never retreat. The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border… United Jerusalem… will grow — and will remain forever the capital of… the state of Israel,” he said.

Gantz’s apparent commitment to the settlement enterprise was underlined by former Defence Minister Yoshe Ya’alon, who joined Gantz’s ticket. “Of course not,” Ya’alon bluntly stated when asked if Gantz would accede to a two-state settlement.

In short, a Gantz administration is presenting itself as a domestically more compassionate and clean government that would carry out the Netanyahu foreign policy, only more so and more competently.

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