Israel’s Gantz Would Likely Maintain Netanyahu’s Foreign-Policy Stance

Date: 09-24-19

By: Felicia Schwartz

Outlet: The Wall Street Journal

TEL AVIV—Retired Gen. Benny Gantz, possibly weeks away from being Israel’s next leader, would likely follow the same path as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on strengthening his country’s alliance with the U.S., securing its borders and countering Iran at a time of crisis in the Middle East.

But Mr. Gantz, 60 years old, has pledged to steer a more unifying course for Israeli society, scaling back religion’s place in daily life and concentrating less power in the hands of the prime minister. A Gantz-led government, should one emerge, could have implications for Israel’s relations with American Jews and any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Such a coalition would also return the premiership to the hands of a celebrated Israeli military figure. Some of the country’s most heralded leaders, from David Ben Gurion to Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, share that heritage. Mr. Gantz served as the head of Israel’s military from 2011 to 2015, while Mr. Netanyahu was the prime minister.

Mr. Gantz campaigned on offering a clean break from Mr. Netanyahu, whom he criticized for being corrupted by too many years in office. The prime minister could be indicted soon after a hearing next month on charges of bribery and fraud, which he denies.

“We will bring about a real change in priorities, and heal Israeli society in all its parts,” Mr. Gantz said on Thursday in a news conference where he declared victory, without being asked to form a government.

Mr. Gantz doesn’t have the same tight bond with President Trump as Mr. Netanyahu, who campaigned with posters of himself and a smiling U.S. commander in chief. But Mr. Trump has described Mr. Gantz as a good person and said Wednesday that the U.S. relationship is with Israel, not any one leader.

Mr. Gantz has said he thought the Obama administration could have reached a better nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, from which President Trump withdrew at Mr. Netanyahu’s urging. But at an event in Washington that year, the retired general said he also saw “the half-full part of the glass”—that the deal would keep Iran 10 or 15 years away from a nuclear weapon “with the right price.”

He has wholeheartedly supported Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign against Iran, as Israel has launched strikes against Tehran’s positions and those of its allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. “I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the fight against Iran’s aggression. I am certain he will do the same when I will be the Prime Minister of Israel,” Mr. Gantz said earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference.

If Mr. Gantz gets a mandate to form a government from Israel’s president, he would need to pull together a coalition among Israel’s fractious political parties to become prime minister. He doesn’t appear to have the votes to form a ruling coalition with parties to the left and the Arab parties. That leaves him with few options besides a broad, cross-party coalition, often called a unity government, which may involve some sort of power-sharing arrangement with Mr. Netanyahu himself. Mr. Gantz campaigned on a pledge to form a secular unity government without Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Gantz’s rise over the past nine months catapults a political novice to the cusp of Israel’s highest office. His closest political allies are, like himself, former generals who have taken hard lines on Israel’s national security. He also counts Yair Lapid, a popular former television personality, as an ally who covers his flank on social issues, such as putting more of a barrier between Judaism and Israel’s secular culture.

Analysts said Mr. Gantz will most likely have to find a way to govern in some way with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, but getting to such an arrangement will be a challenge. Mr. Gantz pledged not to sit with Mr. Netanyahu, while Likud members pledged not to ditch the prime minister.

“The stumbling block is either Likud has to get rid of Netanyahu or Gantz has to swallow Netanyahu,” said Reuven Hazan, a political-science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Mr. Gantz has shown he likes to avoid political conflict, Mr. Hazan said, and act as a consensus builder.

“He tries to work things out,” Mr. Hazan said, pointing to how the retired general ran his campaign. “He didn’t let the conflicts in the party spill out and he didn’t attack Netanyahu in the way he was attacked.”

U.S. officials said they are still considering when to release the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan. Mr. Gantz has met with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, but hasn’t met Jared Kushner or Jason Greenblatt, the other members of the Trump administration’s peace team.

After the election, Palestinian officials said they would be ready to restart negotiations with whoever forms the new government. They have also said they don’t anticipate much of a difference in Israeli policy with Mr. Gantz.

The difference between him and Mr. Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Tuesday, is like that “between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola.”

Mr. Gantz has said he would put any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank up for a public vote and would look to take unilateral steps if a peace deal can’t be reached. “If it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality,” he said in February.

Mr. Gantz has said he opposes unilateral efforts to annex territory in the West Bank. But after Mr. Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jordan Valley several days ahead of the vote, Mr. Gantz said the large strip of land “is a part of Israel forever.”

Many Israelis, including Mr. Gantz, consider that area on the Jordan border essential to Israel’s security, including because its army can stop weapons smuggling there and prevent outside attacks. Palestinians consider the fertile area the breadbasket of a future state.

One place where Mr. Gantz clearly diverged with Mr. Netanyahu is Gaza, where the former general has urged a more forceful military response to Hamas’s launches of rockets and flaming balloons. Mr. Gantz headed Israel’s military during the 2014 war with Gaza, when Israel launched airstrikes on the strip in July 2014 and a ground offensive to destroy the dozens of tunnels the army determined had penetrated Israel.

Mr. Gantz has pledged to improve ties between American Jewry and Israel, which have frayed under Mr. Netanyahu, particularly because of his close relationship with President Trump.

Mr. Gantz said he opposed a decision to block Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) from visiting Israel earlier this summer.

“I think it was a mistake not to let [Omar and Tlaib] in, because we’re strong enough to let people see with their own eyes,” Mr. Gantz said earlier this month.

—Dov Lieber contributed to this article.