Tel Aviv Diary: Meet Benny Gantz, the Man With the Best Chance to End Netanyahu's Decade-long Rule | Opinion

Benny Gantz a former head of the IDF and head of Israel Resilience party speaks to supporters in a campaign event on January 29, 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Although the latest election campaign for Knesset officially started a month ago, it began in earnest Tuesday night, January 29th, when former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz gave his first campaign speech. Gantz's remarks carefully matched the views of the majority of the country. He spoke about peace, reminding listeners that Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin both negotiated peace agreements — and that even Netanyahu gave his famous Bar Ilan address and returned most of Hebron to the Palestinians. Gantz said that the Golan Heights—captured during the 1967 War and regarded by most of the world as occupied Syrian territory—would always remain part of Israel, and that the Jordan River would serve as the country's eastern security borderl. He went on to say that reaching peace with the Palestinians will be difficult and may not be attainable — and if that is the case, Gantz said he would not allow the millions of the Palestinians living on the other side of the wall to endanger the democratic Jewish majority of the state of Israel.

In all these above-mentioned views, Gantz reflects the beliefs of the majority of Israelis,who want a peace agreement but do not believe it is achievable at this time. At its annual conference earlier this week, the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies) released a comprehensive survey of opinions of Jewish Israelis. 58 percent support a two-state solution (down from 71 percent in 2006.) But only 37 percent of those surveyed think it is possible to reach an agreement in the near future. When asked what solution would they prefer, 40 percent want a comprehensive peace; 22 percent aspire toward separation from the Palestinians; 13 percent prefer for the status-quo to continue; 16 percent would like the settlement blocs annexed; while only 9 percent support the annexation of the whole West Bank. It should be noted that 58 percent of the Jewish population believes Israel will forever live by the sword.

73 percent of those surveyed supported Israel taking proactive measures against Iran in Syria, even at the risk of going to war. Under these circumstances, as has been true repeatedly throughout Israel's history, Israelis now clearly want a strong leader with military experience to lead the country. In his initial speech, Gantz made sure to warn the Iranians, Hezbollah and Hamas that they better not start up once he is in charge—going as far as to remind Hamas that Israel once engaged in targeted assassinations and could return to that policy.

Despite all the warnings, this election will not not be about war and peace, but about corruption and whether a prime minister who might soon be indicted can be re-elected to serve and go on trial while in office. Netanyahu called for this election eight months early, once it became apparent the police and the prosecutors were working more quickly than expected, and he needed to preempt the Attorney General's announcement on whether he had decided to indict Netanyahu, subject to an appeal hearing.

Until tonight there was some question of where Gantz stood. But he made it clear by stating: "The current regime encourages incitement, subversion and hatred. The basic values of Israeli statehood have been converted into the mannerisms of a French royal house." He went on: "There was already a king who said: 'The State is me.' But no. Not here. No Israeli leader is a king. The state is not me. The state is all of you." Gantz also made clear that he will not serve with Netanyahu if he is under indictment when he announced: "The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me. This cannot happen."

The Likud has been attacking Gantz, continuously charging that he is a "leftist." In the hours before delivering his speech, Gantz partially preote himself against those attacks, by reaching an agreement with hawkish former Defense Minister and fellow former Chief of Staff, Bogie Yaa'alon, to merge his nascent party into Gantz's list. Ya'alon has the reputation of being a staunch critic of Netanyahu, while at the same time hailing from the right-wing side of the political map. However, that fact will not stop the attacks. In Israel of 2019, anyone who does not support the continued rule of Netanyahu is automatically being defined as a "leftist." Still, getting that label to stick to Gantz will be a struggle.

While leadership and figureheads matter, Israelis do not vote for individual candidates but for national lists. The party with most votes and deemed most likely to rally a coalition is tasked with forming a government. As of the moment, the Likud is still projected to get the largest number of votes of any party. However, the parties of the center might still unite, something that could happen between now and the February 19th deadline.

For the last three elections, the center–left has tried and failed to come together around a candidate who was thought to be able to defeat Bibi. For the first time, observers think now there might be a candidate up to the job. It's still too early to tell, but come April, there is a chance Israel might have a new prime minister.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​