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 Kahol Lavan 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 tried and failed 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 Kahol Lavan 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 Kahol Lavan, 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.
Read Anshel Pfeffer's definitive profile of Gantz
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Gantz has said his party would not join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the prime minister's legal troubles (he faces three corruption indictments pending a hearing).
If a partnership with Gantz is the only way to stay off the backbenches, prominent Likud members could try to topple Netanyahu as party leader, some political analysts have said.
"His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man's refreshing antithesis to Bibi's perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic," said Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute.
Blue and white
Gantz launched his political career by joining forces with the right-wing Moshe Ya'alon, a former defense minister and the center-left former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, to form the new centrist Kahol Lavan party earlier this year.
Gantz and Lapid struck a rotation agreement, where the two leaders would trade places as prime minister after two years as premier.
The new alliance announced the first 20 names on the Kahol Lavan slate: Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya'alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Avi Nissenkorn, Meir Cohen, Miki Haimovich, Ofer Shelah, Yoaz Hendel, Orna Barbivai, Michael Biton, Chili Tropper, Yael German, Zvi Hauser, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Karin Elharrar, Meirav Cohen, Yoel Razvozov, Asaf Zamir, Izhar Shay.
Allison Kaplan Sommer explained how Kahol Lavan’s lack of women at the top of the party highlighted Israeli politics' gender gap. Gantz has since vowed to move toward a 50-50 gender representation in his party and boasts of having the first ultra-Orthodox female lawmaker and female Druze lawmaker in his party.
On the issues
Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israel's security interests.
He has signaled he would make territorial concessions toward the Palestinians, but has also sidestepped the question of Palestinian statehood. In late January, ahead of Israel's unprecedented third election, Gantz said that he would work to advance Israel's annexation of the Jordan Valley after the March 2 election, adding he expects the publication of the Trump Administration's Mideast peace plan.
Speaking during a tour of the region, Gantz said "The Jordan Valley is Israel's eastern defensive barrier in any future conflict. Israeli governments that spoke of the possibility of returning the area [to Jordanian control] were making a grave strategic and security mistake, and we see this strip of land as an inseparable part of the State of Israel."
His party is also running on a platform promising to impose term limits on the prime minister (Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term), invest more in education, allow public transportation on Shabbat and enact civil marriages.
Netanyahu's Likud party attacked Gantz, trying to brand him as mentally unstable and therefore unfit to serve in office.
Chemi Shalevexplained how Gantz’s quintessential ‘Israeliness’ is his secret weapon against Netanyahu.
Likud officials decided on the move in late March, after a leaked recording of Gantz, arguing Netanyahu would like him dead, was aired on Channel 13 News. Likud has since sought to paint Gantz as "insane, a cuckoo, mentally unstable," according to a party source.
Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for his role in the submarines bribery scandal that his campaign clearly hoped would turn the tide against Netanyahu and his “Mr. Security” image. Netanyahu seized on the alleged hacking of Gantz’s cellphone prior to the first election to insinuate that Gantz is no less than a security risk prone to Iranian blackmail.
The campaign aside, Gantz’s biggest obstacle to becoming prime minister however, is finding enough seats in the Knesset to form a government. The right wing bloc favors Netanyahu and is currently larger, meaning the even if Gantz’s party wins more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, Netanyahu may still end up prime minister.
Gantz insists that another government headed by Netanyahu would only last eight months until the prime minister is indicted in the corruption cases against him, the sources said. The attorney general has already moved to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this article