Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

By Dan Williams and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Former military chief Benny Gantz portrays himself as a straight-shooter who will restore simple values to Israel if he wins power in the country’s third election in less than a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Gantz wants to oust in Monday’s election, once praised him as “an officer and a gentleman” when his government appointed him Chief of Staff of the armed forces eight years ago.

The tone is very different now.

Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, has been attacking Netanyahu’s character, mainly over corruption charges facing Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party has branded Gantz a weak leftist.

Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin on March 17, just two weeks after the election. Netanyahu, who at 70 is a decade older than Gantz, denies any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a witch-hunt.

“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”

But while Blue and White has talked up Gantz’s military background, Likud has sought to portray their opponent as soft on Iran and too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.

Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University political scientist, said Israel still appeared to be split, reflecting the inconclusive outcome of elections in April and September last year in which neither party could form a ruling coalition.

Blue and White led Likud in opinion polls for weeks during this campaign but recent surveys have shown Likud pulling slightly ahead.

“The trial is super-important… the center and left in Israel is going against Netanyahu,” Talshir said. “But his (Netanyahu’s) own base is rallying around Netanyahu.”

‘PROPER CONDUCT’

Tall and athletic, with a fondness for folk singing and motorcycle riding, Gantz was a consensus figure for Israelis when chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015.

But what he would do in power is not entirely clear, as he has sent mixed messages.

He casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks.

But while Palestinians may prefer Gantz to Netanyahu, there is little fondness for him after two wars in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave, while Gantz was in charge of the Israeli military. About 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting.

He has also publicly embraced U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians for what they see as pro-Israel bias.

While Netanyahu holds rallies around the country exhorting his right-wing supporters to turn out, Gantz’s party believes some may be persuaded to peel away by a cross-partisan appeal to “proper conduct.”

“Our polls indicate that a considerable number of Likud supporters are unhappy with the situation and are wavering,” Yoaz Hendel, one of the party’s lawmakers, told Reuters. “They are part of our focus.”

Gantz’s “Mr Clean” image took a knock last week when police announced an investigation into the conduct of a now-defunct security consultancy that he chaired after he left the military.

Gantz is not a suspect in the case, but Netanyahu seized on it to try to undermine his less experienced opponent.

Gantz has also made occasional stumbles in campaign interviews, getting an interviewer’s name wrong and stammering slightly while collecting his thoughts.

Netanyahu has used these stumbles as ammunition to accuse Gantz as lacking the capacity for quick thinking.

“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz responded brusquely during a televised speech on Wednesday. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”

 

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu formally indicted in court on corruption charges

By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on Tuesday on corruption charges after he withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahyu was in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Trump’s long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan when Israel’s attorney-general filed the charges in a Jerusalem court.

The immunity bid seemed doomed to fail from the beginning since Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, lacked sufficient votes in the legislature for approval.

The request for protection from prosecution had effectively blocked the filing of the indictment until now.

As proceedings move toward trial the timeline remains unclear and it could take months or years.

In addition to his legal battle, Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in a March 2 election, Israel’s third in less than a year after inconclusive ballots in April and September.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, said in a statement that an immunity debate in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in this “dirty game”.

With public attention in Israel focused on events in Washington, Netanyahu’s White House meetings seemed likely to overshadow his latest legal woes.

The veteran right-winger is under no legal obligation to resign.

Netanyahu’s main rival, centrist former general Benny Gantz, made Netanyahu’s legal troubles a centerpiece of his campaigns in two Israeli elections last year.

Gantz made a brief trip to Washington to discuss the peace plan with Trump, and had rushed back to Israel expecting to lead the parliament debate against granting Netanyahu immunity.

“Netanyahu is going to trial – we have to move on,” Gantz said after Netanyahu pulled his immunity request.

“The citizens of Israel have a clear choice: a prime minister who works for them or a prime minister busy with himself. No one can manage the country and in parallel manage three serious criminal cases,” Gantz said in a tweet.

The corruption charges marked the first criminal indictment against a serving Israeli prime minister. The charge sheet was first published by Israel’s attorney general in November following a long-running investigation. The charges included bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing regulatory favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website.Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Angus MacSwan)