Paraphrasing the words of John F. Kennedy, Benny Gantz, the prime ministerial hopeful, told an audience of English-speakers on Tuesday night that “leaders in a country need to wake up in the morning and ask themselves what do we do for the country and not what the country is doing for us. As much as I hate to say it, that is not the case currently in Israel.”
Gantz expressed confidence that he would win the April 9 election and said that when he does, unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “when I wake up and go to sleep, it will be citizens that worry me, not myself.”
The leader of the Kahol-Lavan party, which has been largely leading in the polls, was speaking at an event organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon, in cooperation with the Israel office of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and The Times of Israel.
The hour-long question-and-answer session was preceded by a 10-minute address by Gantz in English, in which he spelled out his vision for the country, without using any prepared text.
The former army chief said on several occasions during his talk that internal divisions had thrust Israel into an “emergency era.”
“Israel’s minister of culture, instead of developing cultural institutions, she attacks them,” he said. “Israel’s minister of justice, instead of developing the judicial system, she attacks it.”
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“The prime minister attacks everyone,” he added. “It makes no sense. Something is wrong, and we need to fix the house.”
Asked whether he would rule out any parties in a future coalition, Gantz said: “I basically exclude no one, but they have to support the Zionist idea, be democratic and not be racist.”
Pressed specifically about the Arab parties, he said: “While I have nothing against Arab citizens in this country, and I think they are equal citizens, unfortunately their political leaders are talking against the government. So while I can serve the citizens I can’t cooperate politically with their leaders.”
He added that neither would accept into his government “extremists like the followers of Kahane.”
Questioned about his vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the candidate refused to say whether he supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. “We must maintain the Jordan Valley as a security border, we can’t go back to the 1967 line, and Jerusalem will forever stay united as our capital,” he said. “But we do not want to rule the Palestinians.”
“It’s very important that we will have someone to talk to,” he added. “Currently that’s not the case, and I think that Benjamin Netanyahu is locked in past declarations and Mahmoud Abbas is locked in past declarations. Only with new leadership on both sides can we try to move on and get to another place.”
Asked about the absence of women in the top spots on his party list, Gantz said:” I will make sure that down the road we will come to 50-50 in every aspect of life.”
When a member of the audience asked how the candidate felt about being compared to the slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, Gantz said: “To be compared with Rabin is nothing short of one of best compliments I can think of.”
Gantz lost his characteristically cool demeanor when a member of the audience, who identified himself as a resident of the settlement of Efrat, asked him whether he wasn’t suffering from severe paranoia that required treatment. “There are people – not myself – who go to psychiatrists, who need that treatment. Is it fair to think of them like that?” the candidate responded, earning a huge round of applause from the audience.
The Kahol-Lavan leader avoided personal attacks on Netanyahu calling him a “good person.” “I worked for him, I don’t hate him,” he said. “I just think that there should be a limit to everything. I saw the situation and realized someone needs to replace him. I look around and couldn’t find anyone else to do it.”
“I feel when your country calls for you, you do not hesitate,” he explained his decision to throw in his hat.
Alluding to past exploits of him and the other two former army chiefs in his party, Gantz said: “There’s no county in the region that we didn’t visit, mostly without a passport. So no one can tell us really about security.”