Former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest challenger, formally announced his candidacy for the premiership Tuesday and said his government would "strive toward peace and not miss an opportunity to achieve peace in the region."
"Netanyahu is no king, his government sows division and incitement," Gantz said, speaking at the Tel Aviv Convention Center.
"A prime minister cannot preside over Israel when an indictment has been filed against him," Gantz said, referring to the pending decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on whether to indict Netanyahu in the corruption cases against him.
The retired general, the head of the new Hosen L'Yisrael party, entered the stage to a boisterous audience that called him "the next prime minister."
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In his first extended comments since launching his party, Gantz said he is running for prime minister because "I fear for Israel. We are a great nation, but troubling winds are blowing among us.”
As he put it, “The struggle between right and left rips us apart … the tension between Jews and Arabs tears us apart."
Addressing regional threats, Gantz taunted Iranian President Hassan Rohani, saying he knows that Rohani "wants to surround Israel. I will thwart your scheme. I will act against you politically, financially and militarily, and if the message doesn't get through, actions will speak. We don't threaten Iran's sovereignty but we won't accept any threats to Israel's."
Gantz also spoke about the Gaza front, saying he would "allow any humanitarian aid to the residents of Gaza and assist in its economic development, but not allow cash payments in suitcases" –
a reference to Israel's recent allowance of Qatari cash into the Gaza Strip.
"Terrorist leaders must know that Ahmed Jabari wasn't the first and doesn't have to be the last. You don't score points for talking, but for action," he said, referring to a senior Hamas commander who was killed by the IDF in 2012 when Gantz was chief of staff.
Generals joining forces
Gantz's campaign launch came hours after his party confirmed that it was merging with Telem, the party launched by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
The announcement was made following weeks of talks between the two retired generals, who are attempting to offer an alternative to Israeli voters seeking to replace Netanyahu.
Earlier Tuesday, Ya'alon dropped his vow not to join a governing coalition headed by Netanyahu; he said he would accept such a move should Gantz welcome it.
Hosen L'Yisrael and Telem agreed that at least three spots on the joint slate would be reserved for Ya'alon's party.
Apart from Ya'alon, one remaining spot is said to be reserved for Yoaz Hendel. The former Netanyahu spokesman resigned in 2011 amid a sexual assault scandal involving the prime minister's bureau chief. Another spot is said to be reserved for former Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, who resigned two years later.
Ya'alon, who quit Netanyahu's government in protest of the prime minister's "harming the rule of law," sees Gantz as a significant ally in a bid to establish a centrist party emphasizing security issues.
Defending Gantz's silence
Ahead of Gantz's campaign launch, Martin Dempsey, who headed the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2011 and 2015 when Gantz was in command in Israel, told Reuters that Gantz would bring “an open mind to change” and have the “instincts to build a team to solve the most urgent challenges.”
“His silence would likely signal to me that he is carefully and deliberately thinking and learning, preparing to express his views with clarity and confidence, so that he knows who and what he wants to be and do when the political winds begin to blow with greater velocity,” Dempsey said.
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So far, three people have been given high slots on Hosen L'Yisrael’s slate: Hili Tropper, an educator; former Yeruham Mayor Michael Biton, and Alon Schuster, the former head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council.
The Israel Television News Company and Kan public television news reported two weeks ago that former newscaster Miki Haimovich and Asaf Zamir, a former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, would receive spots in the top 10 if they joined Hosen L’Yisrael. Sources told Haaretz that if Gantz’s predecessor as chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, agreed to join, he would likely get the No. 2 slot.
About 10 members of the outgoing Knesset, some of whom had announced they would not seek re-election, have approached Gantz or his associates seeking a spot on his slate, sources said. But all of them were told the party is not eyeing legislators from the outgoing Knesset.
Two weeks ago, in his first public statement since registering his party more than a month ago, Gantz said he would do “anything in his power” to fix the so-called nation-state law.
Speaking to dozens of members of Israel’s Druze minority who gathered outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin to protest the controversial legislation, Gantz said the law should “express the deep, inseparable connection” between Israel’s Jewish and Druze communities, “not only in combat, but in life, too; not only in hardships, but in good times too. We’ll do it together.”