At AIPAC, Gantz vows to rid Israel’s leadership of racism, corruption
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At AIPAC, Gantz vows to rid Israel’s leadership of racism, corruption

Blue and White leader says he won’t hesitate to ‘use force when needed’ against Iran; says Western Wall is ‘long enough for everyone’

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses AIPAC's policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses AIPAC's policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz vowed to purge the Israeli government of corruption and racism should he be elected prime minister next month, while pledging he would “use force when needed” to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and becoming a regional power.

Two weeks before the April 9 election, Gantz addressed roughly 18,000 people at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual confab on Monday in his first major address before an American audience.

He used the speech to castigate his rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for criminal charges that have cast a dark shadow on his premiership over the last two years, and for which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced last month that he would indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing.

Gantz, 59, also attacked the prime minister for a decision that was among his most incendiary for American Jews — his orchestrating a deal that allowed an anti-Arab extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, to become part of a right-wing alliance seen likely to win seats in the next Knesset.

“There will be no radicals, from either side of the political map,” Gantz said. “There will be no ‘Kahanists’ running our country. There will be no racists leading our state institutions. There will be no corruption leading our way. No corruption whatsoever!”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at his official residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Netanyahu had brokered the agreement between Otzma Yehudit and the Union of Right Wing Parties in a bid to boost his future right-wing coalition. (The Supreme Court has disqualified Otzma Yehudit’s top candidate, Michael Ben Ari, on the grounds of incitement to racism. An election panel has also barred Otzma Yehudit’s second candidate, Itamar Ben Gvir, from moving up on the URWP slate after Ben Ari was prevented from running.)

In his speech, the former IDF chief of staff made light of the controversy ensnaring his campaign in recent weeks — the revelations that Iranians hacked his cellphone — while making a firm promise to confront Tehran and prevent it from building nuclear weapons or destabilizing the Middle East.

מועמד "כחול לבן" לראשות הממשלה, בני גנץ – Benny Gantz, בוועידת AIPAC.

פורסם על ידי ‏בני גנץ – Benny Gantz‏ ב- יום שני, 25 במרץ 2019

“We will not tolerate anti-Semitism,” he said. “And that is why, I say from this stage to the Iranian regime: Never again.”

“We will not allow you to establish yourselves in Syria,” he continued. “We will not allow you to develop a nuclear weapon. You know me well, and not because of my cellphone,” he said of Iran, to which the audience responded with tepid laughter.  “On my watch Iran will not become a regional power. And I will not hesitate to use force when needed.”

In the wake of US President Donald Trump’s announcement on Thursday that it was time to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which analysts have said is a major boost to Netanyahu’s reelection bid, Gantz said Israel would not relinquish the territory. “We will never withdraw from the Golan Heights,” he said. “Never.”

Gantz praised Trump as “a true partner and an ally of Israel: Thank you for recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and for placing your embassy there,” he said. “And thank you for recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”

Gantz’s speech came hours after Hamas rockets were fired into central Israel, striking a home and injuring seven people, including two small children.

Netanyahu was slated to address the AIPAC Policy Conference on Tuesday, but will head back to Israel on Monday after his meeting with Trump because of the security situation. Gantz said he would head back as well.

An infant’s swing outside the home of the Wolf family in the central Israeli village of Mishmeret, which was destroyed in the early morning hours of March 25, 2019 by a rocket fired from Gaza. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“The strong, resilient people of our nation, are attacked yet again, forced to live with constant reminders of our enemies hate, and unwillingness for change,” Gantz said. “This hate, fueling a century old conflict, may be the only thing our enemies want to enhance, because this hate, this misery, is all they live for.”

“I will return to Israel,” he went on, “to stand and, if needed, to fight in defense of my people, our people.”

The Israeli general also took aim at Netanyahu’s reversing his own agreement to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, a decision that infuriated the organized Jewish community in the US, especially leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements.

“Unity: That is the secret weapon of the Jewish nation,” Gantz said. “Our ability to stand united should not be taken for granted. In Bergen-Belsen no one asked, who is Reform and who is Conservative? Who is Orthodox and who is secular? Before going into battle I never checked to see who had a kippa under their helmet.

“The divisive dialogue tearing our strong nation apart, may serve political purposes, but is shredding the fabric that holds us together,” he added. “As a proud owner of a red beret, worn by the liberators of the Kotel [Western Wall], I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone. Everyone!”

Earlier this month, Gantz’s Blue and White party included a provision in its platform saying it would implement the currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and establish a first-of-its-kind body made up of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the site.

Recent polls have suggested Gantz’s Blue and White party is poised to receive more seats than any other party, though the surveys also suggested the centrist party would not be able to form a coalition whereas Netanyahu’s Likud would.

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