For­mer gen­eral emerges as adept foe to Ne­tanyahu

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD - By Josef Federman Josef Federman is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

JERUSALEM — For­mer mil­i­tary chief Benny Gantz has burst onto Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal scene as the great hope of the coun­try’s shrink­ing “peace camp” with a mes­sage that is any­thing but dovish.

The re­tired gen­eral, who wants to top­ple Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu in April 9 elec­tions, boasts of killing Pales­tinian mil­i­tants and aligns him­self with po­lit­i­cal hard-lin­ers. He fires back at Ne­tanyahu’s crit­i­cism with scathing counterattacks.

In to­day’s Is­rael, Gantz’s ready-to-rum­ble rhetoric ap­pears to be the only way to bring down the long-serv­ing Ne­tanyahu. That’s turn­ing him into an un­likely source of hope for Is­raelis who view end­ing their coun­try’s rule over the Pales­tini­ans, now in its 51st year, as a pri­or­ity.

Yossi Beilin, an ar­chi­tect of the 1993 in­terim peace ac­cords with the Pales­tini­ans, said fear of another Ne­tanyahu term is driv­ing much of the sup­port for Gantz. He called Gantz a “black dove” — an im­per­fect but tol­er­a­ble al­ter­na­tive to Ne­tanyahu.

“Not that I agree with ev­ery­thing he says, but many of the things he is say­ing are OK from my point of view,” Beilin said.

Opin­ion polls fore­cast vic­tory for Ne­tanyahu’s Likud Party. But since Gantz’s re­cent maiden po­lit­i­cal speech, his new “Is­rael Re­silience” party has emerged as No. 2.

The race could swing in the chal­lenger’s fa­vor. Ne­tanyahu faces pos­si­ble in­dict­ment in a series of cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions, per­haps be­fore the elec­tions. Mean­while, Gantz is re­port­edly ex­plor­ing merg­ers with other cen­trist par­ties.

Gantz ap­pears to be modeling him­self af­ter Ehud Barak and the late Yitzhak Rabin — for­mer mil­i­tary chiefs-turned­prime min­is­ters. Both used mil­i­tary cre­den­tials to lead se­cu­rity-ob­sessed Is­rael to peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Pales­tini­ans.

Wary of be­ing branded a “left­ist,” con­sid­ered a put-down by many Is­raelis, Gantz has said lit­tle about his vi­sion of peace with the Pales­tini­ans. He dresses his rhetoric in se­cu­rity terms as he tries to win sup­port from Ne­tanyahu’s na­tion­al­ist base.

With­out giv­ing de­tails, Gantz has vowed to “strive for peace” and — if that is im­pos­si­ble — to shape a “new re­al­ity.” He said he’d strengthen West Bank set­tle­ment blocs and re­tain con­trol of the Jor­dan Val­ley, a strate­gic sec­tion of the oc­cu­pied West Bank the Pales­tini­ans seek as the heart­land of a fu­ture state.

Gantz said he’s cur­rently re-read­ing Machi­avelli’s “The Prince.” Asked how many mil­i­tants he has killed, he said: “Per­son­ally, quite a few times, and as a com­man­der, many times.”

In Is­rael, the 2014 Gaza war is gen­er­ally seen as hav­ing dealt a blow to Ha­mas, and Gantz’s mil­i­tary record an elec­toral as­set. Driv­ing home the point, he ap­pointed Moshe Yaalon, another for­mer mil­i­tary chief with hard-line po­lit­i­cal views, as his deputy.

Opin­ion polls show Gantz neck and neck with Ne­tanyahu when it comes to fit­ness for prime min­is­ter and han­dling se­cu­rity. About one quar­ter of Gantz’s sup­port­ers for­merly backed Likud or the al­lied Ku­lanu party.

Thomas Coex / AFP / Getty Im­ages

Benny Gantz meets with vot­ers dur­ing a cam­paign stop Feb. 1 in the city of Ris­hon Let­zion.

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