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After years in opposition, left wing considers army general as best bet to oust Netanyahu

Benny Gantz, a macho army general who brags about flattening whole residential neighbourhoods with devastating bombings raids, might not immediately come to mind as the darling of Israels left wing.

But after years in opposition, some beleaguered leftists say they are taking a chance on him. It is less about who he is, they say, and more about who he is not: Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu.

Im looking for hope, said Marsha Weinstein, a clinical social worker who moved from the US to Israel in 1985. Benjamin Netanyahu is tearing this country apart and its heartbreaking I see creeping fascism.

A man walks his dog between election campaign billboards for Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Israel was founded by socialists but its political left wing is in tatters. Ten years of increasingly rightwing governance under Netanyahu has decimated more progressive factions. Israel and Netanyahu have become synonyms, say both supporters and critics of the prime minister.

For years, Weinstein voted for Meretz, a social justice party, and then Labour, the political group formed from the social democratic movement that first led Israel. But with neither apparently having a credible chance to take high office, this week she sat at a campaign event for Gantz.

I know people who served under Gantz, and they say he is an upstanding guy, she said. This election is basically a referendum: yes Bibi or no Bibi.

Gantz, a 59-year-old former head of the Israel Defense Forces, appeared out of nowhere a few months ago. With no political experience, he rapidly rose in the polls and made a deal with the leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, which has a support base among secular middle-class Israelis. They formed the Blue and White (after the Israeli flag) alliance and now pose the most likely challenge to King Bibi in elections on 9 April.

Supporters of the Blue and White party attend a campaign event for Gantz in Jerusalem. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Netanyahu, 69, has created coalitions of pro-settlement and ultra-Orthodox factions to survive. Despite facing the threat of indictment in three separate corruption cases, he remains the most likely winner on Tuesday. And to the horror of many Israelis, he is betting on support from far-right Jewish extremists to hold on to power.

Gantz has run a campaign that is light on policies but focuses on how he can unite a divided country and reset its democracy. We need to fix the house, he said at a rally in Tel Aviv.

He has focused on how members of Netanyahus cabinet have battered state institutions. The culture minister, Miri Regev, has tried to cut funding to groups considered not loyal to Israel, while the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, pushed to weaken the Israeli judiciary, which she sees as a barrier to a hard-right agenda.

The minister of culture is supposed to develop our cultural institutions; she attacks them. The minister of justice is supposed to support our justice system; she attacks it, said Gantz to applause.

His campaign promises, handed out on blue fliers, read like a series of digs at Netanyahu: We will fight corruption we will defend the countrys institutions, including its justice and legal systems.

Blue and White has said it will impose three-term limits for prime ministers. If Netanyahu wins it will be his fifth.

Michal Cababia, a volunteer in Gantzs team, said Blue and White was a party that could unify. Discourse in Israeli society, its so divisive. People want change.

To achieve this, Gantz has attempted political acrobatics: he considers himself leftwing, rightwing and centrist. In the same breath, he will try to woo voters who want to forge peace with Israels neighbours and those who see brute force as the only option.

He talks proudly of how his first assignment as a young recruit was to protect the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat during a visit to Israel that later led to a peace deal. And how, two decades later, he was the last soldier to leave Lebanon after its internationally condemned occupation. He jokes how he visits Arab countries mostly without a passport, an Israeli phrase for wartime travel.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/05/best-of-the-worst-israels-left-looks-to-gantz-as-election-nears