October 23, 2019 / 2:53 PM / 2 months ago

Will 'The Prince' dethrone 'King Bibi'? Israeli ex-military chief aims at premiership

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Confronted by a right-wing heckler while on the campaign trail in Israel, Benny Gantz grabbed the man by the lapels, stared coolly into his eyes and rumbled: “No one’s doing anything wrong by you. We only want what’s good for you.”

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party looks on during his party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

The encounter was part embrace, part menace - ambiguous, as is much about ex-general Gantz, who was tasked on Wednesday with forming the next coalition government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned his own bid to do so. [nL5N2785UL]

President Reuven Rivlin turned to Netanyahu first following a Sept. 17 election in which no party won a majority. Gantz was next in line after his centrist Blue and White party won 33 seats in parliament, one more than Netanyahu’s conservative Likud.

The 60-year-old Gantz, nicknamed “The Prince” as he rose through army ranks, now has the chance to dethrone Netanyahu, who is sometimes referred to as “King Bibi” after dominating Israeli politics for more than a decade as prime minister.

As chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015, Gantz was a consensus figure. He has tried to retain this broad appeal as head of Blue and White, a newly formed party named after the national colors.

But what he would do in power is not completely clear as he has avoided committing himself on some important issues.

Gantz casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, but has stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek.

Supporters see Gantz’s reticence as an attempt to calm the political scene after two elections this year - Netanyahu also failed to form a government after an April ballot. They say Gantz would rather keep his own counsel than sap his credibility with promises that voters know will never be delivered.

As top general, Gantz orchestrated two Gaza wars in which around 2,300 Palestinians were killed.

“We don’t differentiate between either Gantz or Netanyahu,” said Moussa Abu Mazouk of Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

The more moderate Palestinian Authority has said it is open to talking to any Israeli leader. But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, also said before the September election that Gantz was no different from Netanyahu.

QUESTIONS OF CHARACTER

Gantz, who is 6 foot 3 inches (1.91 meters) tall, was brought up on a collective farm founded by Holocaust survivors including his parents, and had a stint in a religious school. He is married to an ex-paratrooper with whom he has four children.

Throughout the election he attacked Netanyahu over corruption allegations that have dogged the prime minister for years, and which the veteran leader denies.

Netanyahu’s counter-charge that a suspected Iranian hack of Gantz’s cellphone may have opened him up to blackmail by Israel’s enemy did not appear to dent the challenger’s image.

A more earthy orator than Netanyahu, he makes occasional scriptural word play and is given to reminding listeners of his military background. While Netanyahu is intense and bookish, Gantz likes folk-singing and jaunts on a Harley-Davidson motorbike.

Netanyahu has cast Gantz as a “weak leftist” who was gun-shy on Iran and the Palestinians while in uniform.

It was, however, Netanyahu who appointed Gantz as Israel’s military chief and, at the time, praised him as “an officer and a gentleman ... a warrior and a human being”.

As a brigadier-general in 1999, Gantz took over a liaison unit to Lebanese allies. By the following year, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, Gantz was a media darling.

He went on to serve a relatively short period in the West Bank, where a Palestinian revolt raged. Gantz later commanded forces on the Lebanese border but was reassigned before the inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, so was spared much of the after-action blowback from an Israeli inquest.

Some ex-comrades say he won the nickname “The Prince” due to his assured rise to the high command. Critics say it reflects a sense of entitlement on his part.

Gantz has dismissed suggestions he lacks the stomach to fight. Referring to a Hamas military commander whom he ordered assassinated in 2012, he said in January: “The heads of the terrorist groups need to know that Ahmed Jaabari was not the first, nor may he be the last.”

Retired U.S. general Martin Dempsey, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2011 and 2015 was Gantz’s counterpart, recalled, in an interview with Reuters in January, that Gantz was a “superb leader” in that role who regularly conferred with subordinates.

Gantz has made no secret of learning on the job, and is leaning on his partners in the Blue and White leadership, who include two other former military chiefs of staff, a former defense minister and a former finance minister.

(Graphic: Israel's Sept. 17 snap election, here)

(This story fixes typo in headline)

Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood

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