His main rival – and currently the only plausible threat to another Likud-dominated government – is former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz and his newly-formed party Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience).
In his bid to be prime minister, Gantz – whose party is currently predicted to pick up around 19-24 seats in the 120-seat parliament – is branding himself as a ‘centrist’, hoping to replicate (or better) the success of similar such candidates in recent elections. Frontrunner Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to win 29-32 seats.
Edo Konrad, deputy editor of +972 Magazine, an independent blog, told Al Jazeera that the dominant form of Israeli centrism today is found in a group of “new centrists” who emerged in the wake of the 2011 social justice protests, including Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, “and to a certain degree Benny Gantz”.
“They are less keen on dealing with the Palestinian issue and instead want to focus on socioeconomic issues, such as the cost of living,” Konrad added.
Some observers identify a conscious effort by centrist parties and politicians “not to look ‘left’, so they de-emphasise the conflict”, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has advised five national campaigns in Israel.
Gantz is also hoping to take advantage of the “anyone but Netanyahu” sentiment among voters. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, describing Gantz’s maiden speech as a combination of “hawkish militarism…and meaningless platitudes”, pointed out that for many voters, “the one and only measure of a candidate is whether he is theoretically capable of defeating the prime minister”.
For Netanyahu’s critics, as Shalev’s Haaretz colleague Noa Landau pointed out, Gantz’s candidacy is about “a return to statesmanship…the war on corruption, defending state institutions, particularly those dealing with rule of law, defending culture and the media; separation of church and state; and of major importance, modesty and a spirit of optimism instead of foulness and aggressiveness”.
|An election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv shows Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump [File: Ariel Schalit/AP]|
But what could Gantz’s brand of centrism mean for Palestinians? If his first speech is anything to go by, the answer is a familiar one.
“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border,” Gantz declared. “We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.”
Such a vision – one where Israel remains in effective control of the entirety of the occupied West Bank but without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship – sounds not only similar to the status quo, but also like Netanyahu’s own proposal for a Palestinian “state-minus”.
Differences ‘meaningless for Palestinians’
Gantz’s approach to the Palestinians is also consistent with that of centrist rival Lapid. Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, told Al Jazeera that “from a Palestinian perspective”, the differences between Netanyahu and the likes of Lapid are “meaningless”.
“Lapid is a proponent of a two-state settlement, but his vision of a Palestinian state has little in common with the concept of statehood as generally understood,” Rabbani said, arguing that Lapid sees negotiations with the Palestinians as a “tactical exercise, the purpose of which is to normalise relations with the Arab states”.
Last year, Gantz told an interviewer that West Bank settlements such as the so-called Gush Etzion “bloc”, as well as Ariel, Ofra and Elkana “will remain forever“. On 11 February, Gantz visited Kfar Etzion settlement, hailing it and other colonies as “a strategic, spiritual and settlement asset”.
Gantz’s running mate, former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has already broadcast a campaign video from a settlement, declaring “our right to settle every part of the Land of Israel”.
|Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv [File: Oded Balilty/AP]|
It comes as no surprise to Palestinian analysts. “If there’s one thing Israeli politicians are agreed on, it is that there will be no independent sovereign Palestinian state,” Nadia Hijab, board president of al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Moreover, the settler movement is so strong that any Israeli seeking power will support it whatever noises they may make about removing settlements,” she added.
For human rights activists in Israel, the politics of Gantz’s “centrism” is a grim reminder of what B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad called “a clear truth”: that “there is an across-the-board consensus for Israel to retain control over its Palestinian subjects in the occupied territories”.
While Gantz’s candidacy is mainly being discussed in terms of his likelihood of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, he may also bring Hosen L’Yisrael into a Likud-led coalition as a senior minister.
According to Scheindlin, such a scenario “is absolutely possible and even likely – Gantz has said as much with his code phrase that he won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu if [subtext: and only if] he is indicted”.
“A new party wants more than anything to enter government, to gain experience and hold ministerial portfolios,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s exactly what Yair Lapid did in 2013 and makes sense – such a party hopes to be the next in line if Likud ever falls, especially since Gantz is consistently polling second place.”
Konrad made reference to the 2016 talks between then-Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu over forming a unity government, but also noted how, for now, Netanyahu has indicated that he is not interested in a coalition with Gantz.
For Rabbani, a government led by someone like Gantz would pose a challenge for the Palestinians. “The West will respond as if he has no history and that his previously espoused positions were not serious statements of intent, and embrace him as the messiah and prince of peace,” he said.
“If the Palestinians decide to play along with this charade until it is exposed,” he continued, “much as they did with other Israeli leaders since the early 1990s, they will get nowhere and once again pull the short end of the stick.”
Indeed, vague remarks by Gantz that Israel does not seek to “rule over others” were greeted by an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with cautious optimism.
“Any attempt by the Palestinian ‘leadership’ to read positive signals on Israeli lips is yet another sign of their bankruptcy,” Hijab told Al Jazeera, “and their powerlessness to achieve their stated goal of an independent Palestinian state.”