Benny Gantz could be Israel’s next prime minister – but he offers no new policy towards Palestine

“Gantz is proving that he is Netanyahu number two.”

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Benny Gantz, Israel’s former army chief of staff who hopes to end a decade of rule by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at tomorrow’s elections, was received like a rock star on Tuesday when he entered the auditorium of Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama hotel for an interview and speaking engagement.

At the event organised by the Times of Israel, the mostly young crowd got on its feet and clapped the lanky, silver haired 59-year-old challenger. Gantz’s progress to the stage was slowed as people thronged him to shake hands and take photographs.

But despite the boisterous welcome, something was clearly lacking in Gantz’s presentation, just as it has been during the three-month campaign in which he has emerged as a serious contender for the premiership: a clear alternative to Netanyahu on policy towards the Palestinians.

Gantz, the son of a Holocaust survivor and a career army man with no previous political experience, founded a new party, Israel Resilience, for the election, and combined it with the centrist Yesh Atid party headed by veteran politician Yair Lapid to form the centre-left Blue and White list. For much of the campaign the new group has outpolled Netanyahu’s Likud party. Latest polls give Likud the upper hand, but there are questions about their reliability and Gantz is still seen as a possible victor.

Gantz’s vision, to the extent he has enunciated it, is far from granting Palestinians genuine independence. He flatly rules out their gaining the capital they seek in occupied East Jerusalem. “We must maintain the Jordan [River] valley as our eastern security border, we cannot withdraw to the 1967 lines as we knew them, we have to maintain the blocs of settlements, and Jerusalem will forever stay the united, in practice, capital of Israel,” he has said. True to his practice throughout the campaign, he made no mention of a two-state peace solution – a Palestinian state alongside Israel, still seen by most of the international community as the means of resolving the more than century-old conflict.

The way he has studiously avoided endorsing this position, as well as his campaign discourse excluding dialogue with Arab political parties, is especially worrisome. It amounts to pandering to the dominant right-wing sentiment of Israeli public opinion, rather than leading a proactive effort to guide the public to a more moderate alternative.

Even when Netanyahu promised in a television interview aired on Saturday night to annex the settlements of the West Bank if re-elected, the reactions of Gantz’s party did not stress that this would be the end of chances for a two-state solution, but rather depicted it as a mere election ploy. “What you haven’t done for 13 years, you are not going to do. Bibi knows that he won’t do it,” said Lapid, who is number two to Gantz on their Blue and White electoral list.

With the liberal democratic aspects of the Israeli system under threat and the country defining itself more and more as a Jewish ethnic state as specified in last summer’s Nation State law, courage and resolve are needed to stop the rot.

But rather than show leadership, Gantz has merely displayed that his biggest fear is doing anything that could give Netanyahu more fodder to claim falsely that he, the man who oversaw Israel’s devastating Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, is “weak” and a “leftist”. Whether he is reticent about his true beliefs or actually is a hawk, his posture has meant that the election campaign is far from a choice between left and right approaches. Instead it is merely underscoring how right-wing Israel has become.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1992, Labor party leader Yitzhak Rabin presented a clear alternative to Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, vowing to cut funding to what he disdainfully termed “political settlements” in the West Bank that had no strategic value and drained taxpayers money. Rabin went on to sign the Oslo self-rule agreement with Yasser Arafat, the former president of the Palestinian National Authority, a year later.

But Rabin was assassinated in 1995. After the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit to reach an agreement on the Middle East peace process, then prime minister Ehud Barak asserted that there was no Palestinian peace partner. And the suicide bombings during the second intifada uprising that began in 2000 have had a lasting impact of moving Israeli public opinion to the right and putting left-wingers on the defensive as a shrinking minority.

“No one is talking about a peace process or not because no one in Israel feels there is someone to talk to,” says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

Indeed, as veteran political analyst Leslie Susser notes, the campaign is, for the most part, a “referendum” on whether Netanyahu should gain a fresh term despite three corruption indictments. These including allegedly giving regulatory favours to the Bezeq telecommunications giant in exchange for favourable media coverage by Walla!, one of the most popular websites in Israel, which is owned by Bezeq.

In his Tel Aviv appearance, Gantz spent much of his time explaining why the answer should be no. “I’m saying that you can’t be prime minister for so many years and you can’t have so many indictments against you and still be prime minister. There’s no way that under these circumstances, in his legal situation, he can stay in his position.”

But end of campaign polls show he is not convincing enough of the public. A survey published by Haaretz newspaper on Thursday gave Netanyahu’s Likud a 30-27 advantage in Knesset seats over Gantz’s Blue and White list, and indicated Netanyahu could easily form a coalition, with other right and religious parties, with 67 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

On Tuesday Gantz did assert that Israel would have to take steps to avoid ruling the Palestinians of the West Bank perpetually, since that would make it a binational state rather than a Jewish one. But this effort would have to be subject to “security considerations,” he said. At the same time, he was careful to stress that there is at present no peace partner on the other side.

Nor are Gantz’s leading partners on the Blue and White list likely to push him towards conciliation with the Palestinians. Two top partners are former army chiefs of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who give the list robust security credentials. But as defence minister in 2014, Ya’alon, who is number three on the list, ridiculed then US secretary of state John Kerry as being “obsessive and messianic” for trying to broker peace talks. Ya’alon was so enthusiastic about settlements that he approved a new one in 2016 across from the volatile al-Arroub refugee camp south of Bethlehem, a move further undermining the territorial contiguity Palestinians would need to establish a viable state.

Gantz has also struck a decidedly right-wing note regarding Israel’s marginalised Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of the population and is often maligned by Netanyahu. Netanyahu has stressed repeatedly during the campaign that Arab parties, whom he alleges Gantz would align with, are out to “destroy” Israel. The premier has even gone so far as to proclaim that, for Arab citizens, Israel is not their country,

“Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” he wrote on Instagram on 10 March. “According to the basic nationality law we passed Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.”

Gantz needs the tacit support of Arab parties to give him the numbers in the Knesset to foil no confidence motions, even if these parties are not coalition partners. But despite this, rather than defend the Arab minority against delegitimisation, Gantz seems worried more about what the right-wing public thinks of them.

And so, he has effectively taken up Netanyahu’s line that the Arab leadership is beyond the political pale. “The political leadership of the Arabs of Israel has made a great mistake,” Gantz told Israel’s Channel 11 television on 20 March. “Because it speaks against the state of Israel I cannot conduct any political discussion with it.”

With such a posture, it is understandable that Arab citizens have scant faith in Gantz. Heba Yazbak, a Knesset candidate for the Arab party Balad, said last week about the contest for who becomes premier: “I don’t see a substantial difference between them. Until now, Gantz is proving that he is Netanyahu number two.”

While Gantz at the Tel Aviv event ruled out serving in the same government as Netanyahu, such a national unity government is not inconceivable. To be sure, it would not be differences over policy towards the Palestinians or Israel’s Arab citizens that would keep the two apart.

Ben Lynfield is a freelance journalist in Jerusalem.