Blue and White leader Benny Gantz slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leading an attack on Israel’s civic life and democracy, as he neared the final stretch of a bruising campaign season Tuesday.
Speaking to Times of Israel’s founding editor David Horovitz at an event attended by over 1,000 people a week before Israelis head to the polls, Gantz warned that Israeli democracy is in danger.
“We are in an emergency era. I wouldn’t say a literal emergency as if something is wrong tomorrow, but we are living in an era of emergency.”
Asked by Horovitz what precisely the emergency is, Gantz replied, “Look at what is happening inside Israel. The minister of culture [Miri Regev] is supposed to develop our own cultural institutions. She attacks them. The Minister of Justice is supposed to support our justice system. She attacks it.”
Gantz added that the minister of internal security, who oversees the police, has failed to appoint a chief of police for the past five months due to what Gantz described as political considerations.
“The security cabinet attacks the IDF and others. The prime minister attacks everyone. It makes no sense. Something is wrong and I’m telling you, we need to fix the house, and it’s an internal emergency,” Gantz, a former army chief of staff, told the audience in a rare English-language interview.
The packed event was co-hosted by The Times of Israel, the Tel Aviv International Salon and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Many audience members burst into applause as Gantz entered the hall at Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama hotel, and his progress to the stage was slow as he was surrounded by people wishing to shake his hand or snap a photograph.
Gantz spoke respectfully of Prime Minister Netanyahu, claiming to admire some of his achievements, but suggested that too many years in office had changed the Israeli premier’s priorities.
“I think Benjamin Netanyahu has done a lot for the country. He is the son of this country. He’s served this country as a soldier and as an officer. His brother was killed. He served in public life for more than two decades and 13 years as a prime minister. But, as they say, enough is enough.”
Gantz said that Netanyahu had lost sight of the ethos of serving the people.
“Isn’t it time for the leaders of the country to wake up in the morning and say to themselves, ‘What are we doing for the country?’ and not, ‘What is the country doing for us?'” he said. “As much as I hate to say it, unfortunately I think that’s not the case currently in the State of Israel.”
Gantz said as a political leader, he was the “client” of the Israeli electorate, not their boss.
“I’m saying that you cannot [be prime minister] for so many years, and you cannot have so many indictments against you and still be prime minister and try to protect yourself and serve the country. There’s no way that under these circumstances, in his legal situation, he can stay in his post.”
Gantz’s comments came as an election season that has been called particularly ugly draws to a close; Israel votes on April 9. The campaigns have seen daily below-the-belt attacks, including a newspaper report highlighted by the rival Likud campaign alleging that Gantz suffered from mental illness.
In the most high-octane part of the evening, a questioner in the audience challenged Gantz with that and a number of other accusations that have been leveled at him by his opponents.
“You said that if Netanyahu could, he would kill you. You said [of] your three closest political allies [Yair Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon] … that you don’t trust them. And on top of that you claim that Netanyahu is trying to hack your phone. Now as someone who studied psychology. it would appear to me that you might be suffering from severe paranoia,” said the questioner. He suggested that Gantz, who last week denied the report that he received psychological treatment after his IDF service, needed treatment.
While parts of the audience booed the questioner, Gantz told the crowd to hear him out and, answering, said “even though our democracy is in danger, we still live in one. And we have different dialogues with different people and we can speak openly.”
Gantz said that his remarks regarding the prime minister and his Blue and White running mates had been quoted out of context.
“I was talking about incitement, I don’t think Netanyahu would try to kill me but I think under certain circumstances he would be happy if I was not around, politically.”
Gantz added that in the past incitement had led to the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“Let’s not forget what happened when this kind of incitement started and we all walked behind Rabin’s coffin. Things have actually happened in this country. This is not theoretical.” As the audience applauded, he continued, “As paranoid as you think I am, I did not stop my campaign. Here I am. No ceramic vest. Everything is okay…
As for the reported psychiatric treatment, Gantz called it “a pure lie” and said, “People like you buy into it because of other interests, not because of what they think.”
Gantz said he had consulted organizational psychologists and experts for years. “It’s the responsibility of a strategic leader” to do so, he said, to resounding applause. Then to more applause, he criticized the questioner for a lack of understanding and respect for people who do need psychological help. “Let me tell you something else and show you where your leader is taking us… There are people who go to psychiatrists. Who need that treatment. Is it fair to think of them like that?”
Also in the evening, Gantz added that he did not think the elections were being fought on a level playing field, a day after a report on an alleged online network of fake pro-Netanyahu social media accounts. Asked by Horovitz whether democracy is functioning the campaign, he replied: “Democracy is functioning, but as I’ve said, democracy is in danger.”
He said he didn’t know how many social media followers he had; Horovitz suggested some 166,000, compared to Netanyahu’s reported six million. “I’m not sure all those six million are real,” he said. “You get tons of messages and you understand that it’s not a person who’s sending it to you. I don’t think it’s really fair. But I’m not naive…. We should investigate… and see who is financing it… In our party every shekel is reported… This also highlights the importance of the traditional media… because social media there is less accountability and less responsibility, and the language is very disturbing,” he said.
“I keep my eyes on the goal. It’s not comfortable, but I think I’m serving something stronger than myself. Nothing will distract me from my goal, which is to lead Israel,” he said. “One day in Lebanon, one day as chief of staff,” were more difficult than the campaign, he said.
Some polls have shown Gantz edging Netanyahu’s Likud as head of the largest party after the elections, but struggling to form a coalition.
But he maintained that “If we will be the biggest party, we will have a sufficient basis” to form the next government. He said the assumptions about which parties belong in which political bloc are not necessarily accurate.
He added that cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties would be possible, but not so with the Arab political parties since the foundation of his government would be the recognition of Israel as Jewish and democratic.
Similarly, he said, he wouldn’t legitimize “extremists,” such as far-right activist Itamar Ben Gvir of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, by including them in any coalition he leads.
Asked by Horovitz whether some in Likud would seek to change the party leader if Blue and White outscores Likud on election day, Gantz said: “I don’t tell the right wing how to manage their leadership.”
Asked about peace with the Palestinians and his apparent ruling out of Palestinian statehood, Gantz said: “We must maintain the Jordan Valley as our eastern security border, we can’t withdraw to the ’67 lines as we knew them; we have to maintain the blocs of settlements; and Jerusalem will forever stay the united, in practice capital of Israel.”
But, he insisted, a political process is necessary, for Israel’s own Zionist interests: “We don’t want to rule the Palestinians…We don’t want to be a binational state. We want to stay Jewish and democratic. So, it means we want to move forward, but we have to do so within the limits of security considerations.”
He added: “It’s very important that we have someone to talk to. Currently, that is not the case… Only with new leadership on both sides can we eventually move on,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Gantz said, “The Jewish state is an outcome of the Zionist idea. The Zionist idea has several pillars that we must remember: a Jewish state for the Jewish people, well defended with recognized borders by the region and by the international community; a strong economy and high ethics of the society, being a light unto the nations, as well as good relations between the state of Israel as a Jewish state and the Jewish communities of the diaspora all over the world. All of the pillars are at [risk] right now.”