Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership

Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership
By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Confronted by a right-wing heckler while campaigning for last month’s parliamentary election in Israel, Benny Gantz grabbed the man by the lapels and glared down at him.

“No one’s doing anything wrong by you,” Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White Party, told him. “We only want what’s good for you.”

The encounter was part embrace, part menace, and highly ambiguous. So is much else about Gantz, who will try to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon his own attempts to put together a new coalition.[

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

The 60-year-old general, 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 Israeli military between 2011 and 2015, Gantz was a consensus figure. He has tried to retain his 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 had 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. When his party won more seats than Netanyahu, he spoke of having fulfilled his “mission” and of his rival having failed in his.

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 top general 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.

How he won the nickname “The Prince” is unclear. Some say it stemmed from his assured rise through the ranks, others from what critics call his sense of entitlement.

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 him as a “superb leader” in that role.

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.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel’s Netanyahu down but not out after failing to form government

Israel’s Netanyahu down but not out after failing to form government
By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – For the first time in a decade, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu will be asked to form a government in Israel.

The 70-year-old prime minister has called two elections this year, has twice been given the chance by the president to put together a ruling coalition, and has twice failed.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Wednesday turn to Netanyahu’s centrist rival Benny Gantz, leaving Netanyahu even more vulnerable in his fight for political survival.

But although he has failed, Gantz – a former general and political novice – also has no clear path to success.

Here are some of the possible scenarios, including even a third parliamentary election in less than a year, after two inconclusive elections in April and September.

WHY IS ISRAELI POLITICS IN DEADLOCK?

Shortly after the Sept. 17 election ended in stalemate, Rivlin gave Netanyahu 28 days to put together a governing coalition.

During that period, which expires on Wednesday, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister persuaded only 55 of parliament’s 120 members, including his traditional far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, to join his right-wing Likud Party in a government.

Having fallen six seats short of a ruling majority, Netanyahu “returned” his mandate to the president, and a spokesman for Rivlin said Gantz would now get his chance.

One way out of the stalemate would be for the two largest parties, Likud and Gantz’s new Blue and White party, to form a “national unity” government.

Early talks centered on the possibility of a rotating premiership but led nowhere. Gantz, a former armed forces chief, refused to join a government led by Netanyahu, citing looming indictments against the prime minister in three corruption cases in which Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.

Gantz also said he wants a “liberal” government, shorthand for one that does not include Netanyahu’s religious partners.

HAS THIS HAPPENED BEFORE?

The last time anyone other than Netanyahu was asked to form a government in Israel was in 2008 when Tzipi Livni, of the now-defunct Kadima party, was given the chance and failed.

That led to an election in 2009 which was won by Netanyahu. Livni never returned to front-line politics, a precedent that is not lost on Netanyahu.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

After receiving the formal nomination from Rivlin on Wednesday, Gantz will have 28 days to build a coalition. As things stand now, he has the endorsement of 54 lawmakers, seven short of a parliamentary majority.

But 10 of the those 54 legislators belong to a four-party Arab alliance. No party drawn from Israel’s 21% Arab minority has ever been invited to join an Israeli government or has sought to serve in one.

Without a deal with Netanyahu, Gantz could seek to form a minority government, with Arab lawmakers’ backing from the sidelines. But that is a big political risk in a country where Arab citizens’ loyalty has been hotly debated.

Arab lawmakers would be likely to face criticism from within their own community for propping up an Israeli government’s policies towards what many regard as their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

AND IF GANTZ ALSO COMES UP SHORT?

A three-week period would ensue in which 61 lawmakers can ask the president to assign the coalition-building task to any legislator – Netanyahu, Gantz or another. If no such request is made in that time, parliament dissolves itself and an election is called – political pundits say March 17 is a possible date.

That could give Netanyahu another chance at the ballot box, barring a Likud rebellion against him.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL TROUBLES?

The deck could be reshuffled once Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announces whether he will follow through with his plan to indict Netanyahu in three graft investigations. His final decision is widely expected by the end of the year.

Netanyahu faces no legal requirement to leave government if indicted, but criminal charges against him – and their degree of severity – could further weaken him politically.

Netanyahu could face fraud and breach of trust charges in all three cases, and bribery charges in one.

ARE THERE ANY WILDCARDS?

Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally and ex-defense minister, heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu which won eight parliamentary seats in last month’s election. He has remained on the fence so far, citing policy differences with Likud’s ultra-Orthodox backers and Blue and White’s left-wing allies.

He effectively prevented Netanyahu from building a ruling coalition after this year’s first election, boosted his standing in the second and could be a kingmaker in the third.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Janet Lawrence)

Netanyahu tapped by Israel’s president to assemble new government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday with assembling a new government after power-sharing talks with his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, failed following an inconclusive election.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, and Israel’s longest-serving leader, still has no clear path to a fifth term after emerging from the Sept. 17 ballot, the second this year, short of a parliamentary majority.

“I have decided to give you, sir, the opportunity to assemble a government,” President Reuven Rivlin said to Netanyahu at a nomination ceremony.

He will have 28 days to form a coalition and can ask Rivlin for a two-week extension if necessary. Netanyahu’s failure to clinch victory in a ballot in April led to last week’s election and left him politically weakened.

In the new countdown, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators in the 120-member parliament, against 54 for Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party. The two parties failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party on the fence since the Sept. 17 ballot, citing differences with both Likud’s and Blue and White’s political allies.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Netanyahu passes threshold for nomination as Israel’s premier

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president said on Tuesday a majority of parliament members had advised him to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form a government after the April 9 election, effectively ensuring his nomination.

In office for the past decade, Netanyahu won a fifth term despite an announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s in February that he intends to charge the prime minister in three corruption cases. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.

Under law, President Reuven Rivlin chooses a party leader whom he judges has the best prospect of putting together a ruling coalition. He will announce his candidate on Wednesday.

In broadcast remarks on Tuesday, the second day of Rivlin’s public consultations with political parties on their preferences for prime minister, he said Netanyahu “now has a majority of Knesset members” behind him.

“Any room I had for maneuver has effectively been removed at this moment,” the president said.

Netanyahu’s nomination had been a foregone conclusion after his right-wing Likud party captured the largest number of seats in the Knesset in last week’s ballot and his closest rival, centrist Benny Gantz, conceded defeat.

Netanyahu has said he intends to build a coalition with five far-right, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would give the Likud-led government 65 seats, four more than the outgoing administration he heads.

Representatives of all of those parties told Rivlin at the meetings, broadcast live on the Internet, that they recommended Netanyahu get the nod.

Gantz, a former military chief of staff whose Blue and White party won 35 parliamentary seats, would likely be next in line to try to assemble a government if Netanyahu fails to do so within 42 days of being chosen by Rivlin.

Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted. He can still argue, at a pre-trial hearing with Mandelblit whose date has not been set, against the formal filing of bribery and fraud charges against him.

The Israeli leader, whose supporters hail his tough security policies and international outreach, is set to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister in July.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)