He was once a good leader of Israel. He has, in the past, done fine things for the country. But he has lost his way, dangerously. And for the sake of Israeli democracy, indeed for the sake of Israel’s very future, he cannot continue as prime minister.
So said Benny Gantz on Tuesday evening about the man whose job he is determined to win: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel in his campaign office in north Tel Aviv, the Blue and White leader framed next week’s elections in the starkest of terms: a binary choice between the Zionist vision of a democratic and secure Jewish state under his leadership, and a rapid spiral under Netanyahu toward a version of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey — with a leader who won’t budge and who gradually brings the judges, the cops, and the press under his enforced control.
Netanyahu’s determination to hold on to power at all costs, Gantz asserted, has come to threaten Israel’s very democracy — with the courts, law enforcement and the media all the focus of his sustained attack. The once admirable prime minister, blighted by the sheer length of his time in office, Gantz said, has become obsessed with his own political survival to the point where he poses a danger to the future of the country he has led for the past decade.
Awkward and sometimes rather wooden in his public appearances, Gantz in a more intimate setting exuded both seriousness and urgency.
“We are speaking about a corrupt man who is destroying the country,” Gantz proclaimed of Netanyahu within minutes of the start of the interview, in which he used both carefully crafted lines familiar from his stump speeches and earnest, instinctive expressions of exasperation.
That accusation is a damning one by a candidate who has promised to be a “positive alternative” to the current divisive leadership, and who launched his political career in January vowing to keep to the high ground and eschew political mudslinging.
Three months on, hardened by the fierce campaign Netanyahu has waged against his own former IDF chief, the 1.95-meter-tall (nearly 6 foot 5) Gantz acknowledged unhappily that he is occasionally forced to “bend down to him to engage in the battle” but still believes Israel deserves a cleaner political discourse. The campaigns have seen daily below-the-belt attacks, including a newspaper report last week highlighted by the rival Likud campaign that alleged that Gantz had sought psychological counseling when he ended his 38-year military career. (Later Tuesday evening, at an English-language event in front of 1,000 people across town hosted by The Times of Israel and the Tel Aviv International Salon, Gantz would dismiss that claim as a “pure lie” while garnering warm applause for evincing understanding and empathy for people who do need such help.)
Gantz insisted that he has nothing personal against the prime minister. But ultimately, in his telling, what Israel is witnessing with Netanyahu now is the corrosive impact of a premier who has spent far too long in power.
Therefore, if elected prime minister, Gantz, 58, promised he will pass legislation mandating a two-term prime ministerial limit. If he wins next Tuesday, he is determined, unlike previous prime ministers, he said, not to give in to the delusion that the country’s very existence depends on him retaining the post, and that all means can be sacrificed to that end.
In his most devastating criticism, Gantz said that Netanyahu’s approval for Germany to sell advanced submarines to Egypt several years ago, which has been tied to a corruption scandal that has snared several of the prime minister’s associates but so far not Netanyahu himself, “could endanger the country.”
With his Blue and White in charge, Gantz claimed, things will be different. And even though some recent polls show Netanyahu’s Likud just ahead of the newly formed centrist party, and the surveys generally show Likud likely to form a coalition, Gantz was adamant that he will helm the next government.
After the election, if the results are similar to those predicted in the polls, President Reuven Rivlin could in theory offer both Gantz and Netanyahu an ultimatum: agree to a national unity government, dividing the premiership by rotation, or see your opponent get the first chance to lead.
“Look,” Gantz said, rejecting that possibility when pressed on it, “we cannot sit with Netanyahu. Netanyahu needs to leave Israel’s political life. To go.”
But, he made clear, there would be no rejecting Likud if, somehow, it were to shed its indomitable leader. Indeed, Gantz said he was aware of surprising openness within Likud to the idea: “Many in the Likud would want to see someone else leading it,” he said.
Blue and White plainly has an uphill struggle in the six days remaining until polls open if it is to defeat Netanyahu. But Gantz, recalling his decades in the military, said he has never faltered when fighting for Israel, and was confident he can win both the battle for the electorate and the war for Israeli democracy. “Look at what happened: For 10 years, no real alternative has risen up against him. I believe that I will win… In a matter of three months, I have established a real alternative,” he said.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, translated and edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Are you worried for Israel’s democracy?
Benny Gantz: Deeply worried, yes.
Netanyahu, in an attempt to protect himself personally, is allowing extremist processes to take hold in the country that, in my opinion, are unacceptable: Look at the people with whom he is partnering politically, as we have seen with the Kahanists [of Otzma Yehudit]; look at his approach to the courts and his ministers’ approach to the courts, as we see with what Justice Minister [Ayelet] Shaked wants to do [regarding judicial reform]; and look at his claims that he will not personally advance legislation [to give himself immunity from prosecution] but will allow others to.
What we do see is a phenomenon reminiscent of Turkey, where Erdogan is protecting himself from investigations and from other efforts aimed at preventing corruption. [Netanyahu] said a long time ago that he thought a prime minister shouldn’t serve more than eight years. He lied and persists as if he had never said it. He hasn’t mentioned it once [of late]. And he has never explained why. At least be polite enough to explain why you are still serving. Nothing. Nothing. What is he, a king?
You really fear the State of Israel could become like Turkey?
Yes, and we are headed there. I am very worried about it.
I hope not, of course. Judaism is the best basis for democracy. The debate between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, the constant debate, has been a tradition of ours for thousands of years.
This is the opportunity to change the leadership in Israel and to put the country on a statesmanlike and sane path
But what did Erdogan do? He made sure that you can’t investigate him, and you can’t put him on trial, and not his family either. You are going to get the Israeli version of the Turkish system. It won’t be the same, it will be something like it. That’s what will happen here.
People need to understand, very simply: If they want a positive alternative to all of this, they have only one option — Blue and White at the ballot box, and nothing else. This is the opportunity to change the leadership of Israel and to put the country on a statesmanlike and sane path, Zionist and security-minded, with an economic vision, with a social vision, with a vision to unite Israeli society, helmed by people with vast security experience, but expertise not just in security.
The future of the country is at stake here?
So if he is elected again, you are worried for the future of the police, the courts, the media?
(Gantz nods.) Tell me if it sounds normal to you. The culture minister attacks the cultural institutions. The police minister attacks the police. The justice minister attacks the courts. The security cabinet attacks the IDF. And the prime minister attacks everyone, including the media, because he was also communications minister. It’s already happening.
The future of Israel as a democracy…
Is at stake. As a democracy, it is at stake. I’m not saying the problem is coming here tomorrow, but the trend is very, very, very dangerous.
Two terms should be the maximum for a prime minister?
Yes. I think the important thing is limiting the prime minister’s tenure. It could be two terms, it could be eight years with three elections. But the guiding principle is to limit the prime minister’s time in office. I tell you, you can see before you what happens to a person who spends 13 years as prime minister. Thirteen years! Ten of them consecutively!
It’s impossible to maintain. The whole time you are dealing with your political survival. The whole time.
Netanyahu is convinced that his presence as prime minister is vital for the good of the country.
We replace the chief of staff every four years; does the IDF fall apart? We replace the police commissioner every three or four years; does the police fall apart? We replace the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad every five years; do they fall apart? No, they cultivate leadership. Is the role of the prime minister to cultivate political leadership in Israel? My answer is yes. His answer is no
Yes, yes, I understand that. He has done good things for the country. I wish him a long life and much health. But what will happen [if he goes]? We replace the chief of staff every four years; does the IDF fall apart? We replace the police commissioner every three or four years; does the police fall apart? We replace the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad every five years; do they fall apart? No, they cultivate leadership.
Is the role of the prime minister to cultivate political leadership in Israel? My answer is yes. His answer is no, because he thinks you need to cut the head off of any other potential leadership so it doesn’t endanger his own. He is not a king. He is only the prime minister.
Among much of the public, after all these years, it appears there is a feeling of ‘what will we do without Netanyahu?’
Let’s look at it. Let’s analyze it. According to polls, I have 32 seats and he has 28. (Gantz was citing a Channel 12 poll from Sunday night.) So even now more people think I should be prime minister rather than him. Even now. All the rest are satellite parties that have their own interests at heart, not Netanyahu’s. They are not with him because they support him but because it’s a way to serve their own interests. So I don’t think that it is correct to say that most of the public wants Netanyahu. The opposite is true: Most of the public don’t want Netanyahu. But the country, because of its political structure, has been more or less stuck with Netanyahu.
For 10 years, no real alternative has risen up against him. I believe that I will win, but one thing I already know is that in three months I have established a real alternative. Three months, that’s it.
Would you sit in a unity government if the president requests it?
Look, we cannot sit with Netanyahu. Netanyahu needs to leave Israel’s political life. To go. I hope he will be successful [in his efforts to clear his name as he faces corruption charges pending a hearing]. I have no personal hatred toward him — but I think that from a public standpoint he should go. What you demand of others you should carry out yourself. If an MK cannot remain [in office under indictment], if a minister cannot remain, a prime minister also cannot. Now it’s not just one indictment; it’s one, two, three, now maybe four. And four state’s witnesses… We cannot remain with him. Period.
What if the president says that if you don’t agree to form a unity government, he will pick Netanyahu?
I am not able to sit with Netanyahu. Friends, I am facing reality — I am telling you, we are speaking about a corrupt man who is destroying the country, and I cannot sit with him.
Within the Likud, are they all of the mind that it has to be Bibi? They don’t see the problems? Or, from your efforts to reach out to them, do you know of dissatisfaction with him?
I know that there is big dissatisfaction within the Likud.
Many in the Likud would want to see someone else leading it
Among its MKs?
Among its MKs, yes. But within the Likud there is a certain culture around the prime minister and they are playing the Likud game. There are countless recordings of ministers and MKs talking about him in all sorts of ways. Many in the Likud would want to see someone else leading it. It would be good for the Likud if someone else was leading it. I tell you, Bibi is not a king and not the messiah and it’s possible to go on without him. He has done his work. He served his party. He served his country. He served himself. Okay, let’s move on.
Are the ultra-Orthodox lost as potential coalition partners?
Listen, you are more experienced than me. We are now in the election period. They are speaking with their people, they are deliberating among themselves, they need to decide who they want to go with, they need to fight for their path. I respect that.
In the end, whoever forms the government, they will want to join him. Whoever forms the government will also want the ultra-Orthodox to be with him. Not just because of political considerations but, in my opinion, because they are a significant part of Israeli society. More than a million people. And I will not ignore them. We want them to be part of the economy, part of society. I am also in favor of protecting the Torah and Torah-study and yeshivas. I am not opposed, I just want there to be a balance between what they do for themselves as a specific sector and how they are part of the general society. And I am convinced that after all the noise, we will be able to start talking afresh.
On the peace process: From all that you have said, it sounds like you are ruling out a Palestinian state. Some form of independence, some form of self-rule, but by the fact that you insist on retaining overall security control of the West Bank and a united Jerusalem, it’s basically ruling out a Palestinian state. Is that correct?
Everyone is looking at the outcome from the endpoint. And they believe that when you don’t say “Palestinian state” or “two-state solution,” or any sort of headline that fits with people’s familiar phrases, the issue cannot be solved. I say, friends, leave the endpoint. The Zionist vision talks about us being a Jewish and democratic country, with secure borders, recognized in the region, with global support, with a strong economy, an exemplary society, and a good relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora. I have explained Zionism in 30 seconds. I look at the issue from this perspective. I look at the process.
We don’t want to control another people. There is nothing for us in the Nablus casbah. But we cannot give up on our security. And we are not willing to give up on Jerusalem. Nobody is withdrawing to the ’67 lines, and the settlement blocs will remain on our side.
Let’s begin the journey, let’s start the process, let’s engage with one another and see what kind of outcome we can have. Everyone is looking at these words from the perspective of the endpoint and is alarmed by them. If I were to tell you now “two states,” what does that mean? What would the [Palestinian] state look like? Let’s start the process.
What should Netanyahu have done? What he said he wanted to do. But he hasn’t. He did nothing on the Palestinian issue.
The US will present its peace plan now…
Okay, we will see what is written in it. We will start from there once we see it.
As prime minister, will you annex the settlement blocs?
I won’t do anything unilaterally. We will rejuvenate the diplomatic process, we will try to reach an agreement with our neighbors, an agreement with the Palestinians, as much as we can in this direction. But we want to develop the settlement blocs much more because we know they will remain with us all the way.
Will you be able to build good relationships with the Trumps and Putins?
Yes. This notion that only Bibi is able to do so is just a myth, it’s not true. I was Israel’s military attache in Washington, I know how the Pentagon works, I know how the State Department works, I know how the White House works. I haven’t been prime minister. I expect that the second year will be better than the first, that’s how it goes. But that’s okay. Everyone started at some point. And I don’t know any position that there is no replacement for. What, only Bibi can be there? There is Trump and me and Bibi and Trump, and after Trump there will be someone else. It’s not a function of Trump or Putin, it’s about relationships between countries. I know how this works and I’m not worried about it at all.
How will the Blue and White rotation deal work? Yair Lapid will act as your key confidant when you’re prime minister and then you as his when the roles are reversed?
We established a joint leadership, which I lead. In the past, similar models have been called “the kitchen cabinet.” It’s not a new idea. A group of leaders leading a political group with central deliberations of the main issues. I don’t need to ask their advice on every bump in the road; I am prime minister, I run things. For matters that have long-term consequences, or strategic decisions, I will want to discuss with him because he is my partner, and with the other leaders, and I think that’s fine.
And after two and a half years it will switch?
After two years and seven or eight months. Yes. That’s how it will work.
Explain your remark that you are “not sure about any of them,” referring to the rest of the Blue and White leadership.
Listen, that’s the political discourse. Our group of four friends is a strong partnership, a stable partnership, we talk between us and we have a good dialogue. Gabi [Ashkenazi] has said things about me and I have said things about him. We know this story. We have a leadership, we have meetings, we have disagreements, we make decisions, and in the end it works just fine.
In a recent interview with Channel 12, when you spoke about the hacking of your phone, why did you say, without being prompted, that you wouldn’t resign over it and that your wife stands by you? It sounded odd considering you weren’t asked.
What I’m saying about the phone is very simple: There is no security related content on it and there is nothing that will disturb me in my role [as prime minister]. Anyone who is trying to suggest salacious stories — it doesn’t interest me at all. I have a goal: to serve the State of Israel. Nothing will move me from that path — not rumors or tricks. I am continuing and that is all.
What did you think when you saw “Captain George” in the prime minister’s residence yesterday [as Netanyahu hit back at reports regarding a coordinated campaign of fake twitter accounts]?
It was not good. They take people who run fake accounts, and who use insults and slander and cheap attacks and lies, and they turn them into their strategic partners? That is simply inappropriate. To take Kahanists and the like and to turn them into your defensive wall is inappropriate. We have a whole country here that needs to keep going after the election. What, you don’t have any responsibility as prime minister for that?
You’ve said that the Likud was funding the campaign? Do you have proof of that?
We can see the whole process. We see the scale of the attacks, we can see who are the targets of these attacks. So let’s think, who could be doing it? And so we’ve called for an investigation, so that it gets checked.
Even on a level playing field, Netanyahu has around six million followers on all of his social media platforms, compared to the some 160,000 that you have.
All I will say is that the 160,000 that I have are my real followers.
What have we not understood about Case 3000 — the submarine affair — which you have described as the most serious corruption case in Israel’s history?
It is extremely serious. The defense establishment does not always have to be the one making the decisions — for that there is the prime minister — but it must be part of the process. Absolutely must. There is not state secret like this [a reference to Netanyahu’s self-declared unilateral consent to Germany selling advanced submarines to Egypt] that cannot be known by the chief of staff or the defense minister or the head of the Mossad. If there was some sort of secret like this, it would not be about submarines. This is not an issue that you decide on by your self. He can make the decision. He can say, I want [the Egyptians] to have 12 more submarines. But he does it via the system.
That means that his explanation that this is a matter so secret he could not share it…
First, is impossible. It is not possible.
And second, with all due respect, you cannot make a decision like that completely on your own. It’s a total breakdown of the entire system.
Congress obligates the US president to explain once every four years what he has done to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge. But you allow the Germans, behind the backs of your own security officials, to provide advanced weapons systems to a neighboring state?
Does it endanger the country?
First of all, it’s irregular, by definition. It could endanger the country. Who knows what will happen here. And then you say to yourself, how can it be connected specifically to Thyssenkrupp, which is connected to another company, connected to your family and a company they owned, which you had shares in that went up 700 percent in a year and a half?
So, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, maybe it’s a duck.
You have been focusing a lot on the submarines in your campaign. Do you think the public is unperturbed by the other cases?
There are some who will say that it’s okay to get champagne and cigars [in so-called Case 1000], because he’s the king and people give gifts to a king, just like in other countries around us. It’s not okay.
Do people care about all of this?
I believe they do. It doesn’t have the same force as something that connects corruption and security. But then there’s this too: The man bought media outlets [in Cases 2000 and 4000]! We see what is happening.
You wanted, as you said in your first speech, to run a clean, positive campaign…
To maintain the high ground.
Netanyahu goes terribly low. I occasionally have to bend down to him to conduct this battle, but in principle, I think that Israel deserves something more respectful, more statesmanlike, more serious
Yes, the high ground. Has Netanyahu forced you elsewhere?
Yes, he goes terribly low. I occasionally have to bend down to him to conduct this battle, but in principle, I think that Israel deserves something more respectful, more statesmanlike, more serious. So I try to maintain the high ground as far as possible.
Your entry into politics: Is it worse than you thought it would be?
No, I expected it would be like this. Listen, I live in Israel, I can see what is happening. I can see that Bibi is in the fight of his life. He understands that the alternative I pose is very, very serious. He is trying to evade prosecution by retaining power. He understands that without being in power, there is no procedural system to defend him; he will simply face a ruling and will need to fight for his innocence. And I hope he succeeds. I don’t wish ill on him. I want to stress this: I will not enjoy seeing Netanyahu go to prison. That is not what I want for him. Really not.