Israeli ex-general, pragmatist aiming to oust Netanyahu

Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of Israel's army, looked to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister before agreeing to a unity government deal (AFP Photo/GIL COHEN MAGEN)
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Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel's former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who Monday won a fresh shot at forming a government, is widely seen as defined more by his pragmatism and opposition to veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than concrete policies.

The 60-year-old has been in the public eye since first declaring political ambitions and running against Netanyahu in December 2018.

Within months, his centrist Blue and White party shocked Israeli politics by matching Netanyahu's right-wing Likud in polls last April and then edging slightly ahead of it in September.

But neither party was able to gain the support of more than half the 120 MPs in the country's proportional system, forcing yet another election on March 2, the third within less than a year.

After the latest vote, the anti-Netanyahu forces, despite deep divisions, unanimously rallied behind Gantz and recommended him to form a government.

Many Israelis, however, feel Gantz is still more defined by his pragmatism and opposition to the incumbent premier than for offering genuine change.

- 'Benny-huta' -

Gantz was born on June 9, 1959, in Kfar Ahim, a southern village that his immigrant parents, both Holocaust survivors, helped establish.

He joined the army in 1977 and went on to command Shaldag, an air force special operations unit.

He earned the military nickname "Benny-huta", a play on the word meaning "in good time" or "no rush" -- indicative of his relaxed character.

In 1994, he returned to the army to command a brigade and then a division in the occupied West Bank, before serving as Israel's military attache to the United States from 2005 until 2009.

He was the army's chief of staff from 2011 until his retirement in 2015, working closely with Netanyahu.

In 2014, he commanded the army's operations in the war with Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and has boasted of the number of Palestinian militants killed and targets destroyed.

Blue and White is often hawkish on security and includes a number of Likud defectors in senior positions.

Through the latest campaign, Gantz sought to keep voter attention on the corruption charges against his rival Netanyahu.

- 'In tandem' -

Gantz, who stands well over six feet (1.82 metres) tall, has kept his positions vague in several key areas, including the moribund peace process with the Palestinians.

Like Netanyahu, he was quick to endorse US President Donald Trump's controversial peace plan, viewed as overwhelmingly pro-Israeli and firmly rejected by the Palestinians.

But while calling it a "historic milestone", he also seemed to hint at reservations.

"Immediately after the elections, I will work toward implementing it from within a stable, functioning Israeli government, in tandem with the other countries in our region."

Some saw the idea of "in tandem" with neighbouring Arab states and the Palestinians as a tactic to bury the plan indefinitely.

A security hawk, Gantz has said, like Netanyahu, that the West Bank's strategic Jordan Valley must remain under Israeli control.

Whether Gantz can forge a stable coalition is unclear, but he said Monday that Israel "must not have a fourth election".

"I'll do everything to form in as few days as possible a national, patriotic and broad government," he added after formally being nominated.

Pressure for compromise is also mounting as Israel grapples with 255 coronavirus cases amid an accelerating global pandemic.

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