Is this the end for strongman Netanyahu?
Credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images   

It’s Monday afternoon in March and Tel Aviv’s fashionable Rothschild Boulevard is starting to fill with Israelis on their way home from work. Raviv Lifshitz, a 50-year-old industrial designer in a tweed jacket, sits on a bench with a cappuccino in a paper cup. Nearby, his three fluffy collies loll in the sunshine below towering ficus trees.

It’s a scene of late winter Mediterranean idyll, but to hear Lifshitz tell it, darkness looms on the horizon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for a fifth term in office, defiantly continuing his campaign in the face of pending indictments in several corruption cases. Should Netanyahu win, it will spell in Lifshitz’s view a “catastrophe for Israeli democracy.”

That’s why Lifshitz is voting for Benny Gantz. The former chief of the Israel Defence Forces, Gantz burst onto the political scene in late December. He has no political experience. But that hasn’t stopped Netanyahu-weary Israelis like Lifshitz from investing their hopes in him.

“The necessary thing is to replace Bibi,” Lifshitz says, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “I would say no matter who, but the one who can do it is Gantz.”

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Up and down Rothschild Boulevard, the heart of Israel’s most liberal city, Gantz supporters are easy to find. And most have the same reason for backing him.

“He has a chance of replacing Bibi,” says Noam Ahituv, a 43-year-old web programmer who was smoking a cigarette on the street.

“He’s just not Bibi,” echoes Lihi Ben Arie, a 36-year-old product manager sitting on a bench with two friends, one of whom piped up with another reason to vote for the tall, blue-eyed candidate: “He’s hot!”

For the past decade, Netanyahu has had a virtual lock on power. After first serving as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he was again elected in 2009 and has maintained the position ever since. Today, there’s no figure more divisive in Israeli politics than Netanyahu.

To his supporters, he is Israel’s peerless statesman and protector, defending the country from, on any given day, journalists, Leftists, Israel’s Arab citizens, and the attorney general who seeks his indictment. To his detractors, he is a crook leading the country into a moral abyss, in which maintaining the status quo comes at the expense of Israel’s democratic institutions, its standing in the free world, and the country’s ability to make peace with the Palestinians.

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And yet up until recently, Netanyahu’s continued rule seemed like a foregone conclusion to most in Israel. With no credible alternative on the horizon, Netanyahu banked on an easy win when, in December, he called for early elections.

Back then, Israel’s attorney general had not yet announced his plan to indict Netanyahu in several corruption cases. By winning yet another election, Netanyahu reasoned, he would thwart the potential charges by renewing the lease on his leadership.

But then along came Gantz.

Israelis recognise Gantz from his tenure as IDF chief between 2011 to 2015, in particular his leadership during Israel’s 2014 military operation in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge. In January, Gantz kicked off his campaign with a speech that took aim at Netanyahu, comparing his administration to a “French royal house” and promising to return the Israeli government to the people.

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Next Gantz merged his party, Israel Resilience, with two other parties to form the Blue and White alliance, a centrist mega party named for the colours of Israel’s flag. If elected, Gantz plans to serve two and a half years as prime minister before switching with Yair Lapid, his Blue and White co-head.

Blue and White made a strong showing in polls after Israel’s attorney general announced his intention on February 28 to indict Netanyahu in three different corruption cases, pending a hearing. But now the race is narrowing. Blue and White still outpaces Netanyahu’s Likud in the April 9 election, but by a slim margin. In Israel’s electoral system, the head of the party that wins the most seats is given the first chance to assemble a coalition out of a majority of parliament seats. As of now, it remains unclear whether Blue and White will be able to convince enough smaller parties to form a government.

In an election that is ultimately a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule, the most attractive thing about Gantz, as Lifshitz and his fellow citizens soaking up the sun on Rothschild Boulevard show, is that he’s not Netanyahu. The second most attractive thing is his military background.

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In a country where service is mandatory for the majority of citizens, Gantz’s army pedigree projects an image of strength to the security-obsessed public. It’s an image that he has heavily campaigned on. In early video advertisements, he bragged about killing terrorists and showed footage of the vast destruction of the Gaza Strip during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. (In fact, Gantz is facing legal action for his conduct during that war; a Dutch-Palestinian is suing Gantz and another ex-general for the bombing of his family home in Gaza, which killed six relatives. A Dutch court is deciding whether to hear the case.)

For Michael Freedman, a 39-year-old British immigrant to Israel, Gantz’s security credentials are one part of the reason he is “90%” sure that he will vote for Blue and White. “I know Gantz only from the media and from his performance as chief of staff, but he seems to be a genuinely safe pair of hands,” he says, standing in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hall after an event featuring Gantz’s Blue and White co-leader Lapid.

Gantz “ran Israel’s largest and most prestigious institution, I would argue,” Freedman continues. “Does that qualify him to be prime minister? I don’t know but you have to take the candidates you have. Bibi’s current behaviour absolutely disqualifies him from any public offices. [Gantz] is the alternative we have, let’s hope he’s as good a prime minister as he was chief of staff.”

To Freedman, this election is as high stakes as it gets. “This is really a battle for the soul of what Israel is supposed to be,” in terms of the country’s approach to rule of law, democracy, and the validity of the courts. Netanyahu, he says, is undermining them all.

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Predictably, Netanyahu’s line against Gantz is that his former military chief is a Leftist. He even claimed that Gantz attended a ceremony honouring Hamas militants killed in the 2014 war. Israel’s liberal newspaper Haaretz fact-checked the assertion and found that the event in question was actually an Israeli peace event near the Gaza border, calling for reconciliation between the two sides.

Gantz is hardly Left. Along with Lapid, he is campaigning with two other military men, former defence minister Moshe Yaalon and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Yaalon is an outspoken supporter of the settlement movement. The Blue and White party’s platform is an ideological medley, with nods to security, religious pluralism, and equality, but with a diplomatic program that no Palestinian government would accept. (For one, it claims Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to build a capital, for Israel alone.)

“It is a kind of supermarket party,” says Ofer Kenig, a researcher with the Israel Democracy Institute.

According to Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a political pollster, part of Gantz’s test will be whether he can reach Israelis disillusioned with Netanyahu on the moderate Right.

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In Jerusalem, Amir Elfassy is taking such an ideological leap, although he started from a more extreme position than many would-be Gantz voters. The 34-year-old owner of the Butke bar, Elfassy previously voted for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, which calls for Israel to annex parts of the territory Palestinians claim for a state.

Now he’s with Gantz’s Blue and White.

“It is the first time I’m not voting Right,” he says, standing inside the bar, a small brown box of a building in Jerusalem’s First Station, a commercial strip in a converted Ottoman-era train station.

Elfassy’s political shift is idiosyncratic. He used to align himself with the hardline rhetoric of the Right. As a former soldier, his first encounter with Arabs was on the other side of his gun. But since moving to Jerusalem and opening a bar, he has made friends with Arabs. He even has Arab employees, like “my little brother Muhammad,” he says, gesturing to a skinny young man with a pony tail, Muhammad Zaghal, who is rolling a spliff on the bar top.

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Now Elfassy has a “live and let live” attitude — albeit one that has its limits. It’s not like he’d approve of his daughter dating an Arab, he says. He knows Gantz agrees with that approach. “Benny Gantz has these ideas at the top of his mind, and security.”

And what about Zaghal? Unlike most Jerusalem Palestinians, he has Israeli citizenship, which means he has the right to vote in national elections. At 21 years old, this will be his first.

Packing leaves into a cigarette paper, he says he’s not sure yet if he will vote. “I don’t really like politics.”

But among many Israelis, politics is addictive these days. With about a month to go until the election, Israelis are glued to their smart phones, following every minute development ahead of April 9, when their country might face its biggest political upheaval in years.

It all depends on whether a centrist general turned politician can convince the country to take a chance and buck the status quo.