Israel general Benny Gantz emerges as surprise election threat to Benjamin Netanyahu

A former general has breathed new life into the Israeli election campaign as polls showed for the first time that Benjamin Netanyahu is vulnerable to defeat by a centrist coalition. 

Benny Gantz, the former head of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), has formed his own political party and is now running from the centre against the Right-wing prime minister he once served. 

Since the elections were called in late December, opinion polls have consistently shown Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party on course for victory. 

But Mr Gantz’s ratings have soared since he gave his first major speech this week, where he accused Mr Netanyahu of pitting Israelis against each other to preserve his own political power.  

“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,” Mr Gantz said. 

He presented himself as a unifying leader with vast military experience, who is unafraid to use force but also hopes for peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours. 

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A poll taken after the speech found Mr Gantz winning 21 parliamentary seats compared to 30 seats for Mr Netanyahu. 

However, the same poll found that if Mr Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party merged with Yesh Atid, another centrist party, they could win 35 seats and defeat Mr Netanyahu. It is the first time since the start of the election that polling has found Mr Netanyahu vulnerable.  

Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid are in talks to run together but it is not clear if either party will make the compromises needed for a merger. The election is April 9 but the parties must finalise any agreement by February 21.

The surge in support for Mr Gantz appears to have rattled the Israeli prime minister, who has been in office since 2009 and may face criminal charges over a long-running corruption scandal.

Prosecutors are expected to begin indictment procedures against Mr Netanyahu in the coming weeks. He denies wrongdoing and says the criminal proceedings against him are part of a politically-motivated witch hunt.  

Mr Netanyahu has attacked Mr Gantz as a Leftist and suggested that the general would form a coalition government with Palestinian-Israeli political parties. 

Mr Netanyahu is reportedly considering an alliance between Likud and a smaller Right-wing party to make sure they win more seats than the centrists.  

Mr Gantz was vague about specific policies in his speech and did not explicitly say he favoured the creation of a Palestinian state. 

The Trump administration says it will release long-awaited peace plan after the Israeli elections in April. Expectations for success are low after the Palestinians cut off contact with the US in protest at Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. 

However, if the plan did gain traction a centrist government led by Mr Gantz might be more open to compromise than a Right-wing coalition led by Mr Netanyahu. 

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