In his first major foreign and security policy address, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, the head of the newly formed Israel Resilience party, said on Sunday that while he has many disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “when Israeli security is under threat, there is no daylight between us.”
Speaking at the high-profile Munich Security Conference in southern Germany, Gantz laid out what he described as the three main security challenges facing the Western world, specifically highlighting the threat posed by Iran and vowing to confront its “evil” regime.
In a speech that echoed many of the messages delivered by Netanyahu at previous addresses to the forum, Gantz said that the West must focus its efforts on tackling an “extremist Iran, Islamic terror, and regional instability.”
Speaking after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the conference that Israel is “looking for war” and that the behavior of Israel and the US was increasing the prospects of all-out conflict, Gantz warned the foreign, defense and prime ministers at the conference, “Do not be deceived by his eloquence. Do not be fooled by his lies.”
“As IDF former chief of staff, I saw firsthand, precise information regarding what is really happening in Iran. Hence, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the regime Mr. Zarif represents is an evil one,” Gantz said.
Citing persecution of women, gays and minorities, as well as a military threat to the Middle East and beyond, Gantz charged that Iran “is the nemesis of everything the people in this hall hold dear and believe in.”
While stating unequivocally that he intends to replace Netanyahu as prime minister, Gantz also made clear that when dealing with threats toward Israel, he stands “shoulder to shoulder” with the premier, who has made Iran, and opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal, a focus of his 10 year-premiership.
“It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu is my political rival. We disagree on many issues,” Gantz told the audience. “But make no mistakes – we are both devoted sons of the same nation. When Israel’s security is under threat, there is no daylight between us. On this critical issue there is no right or left. There is no coalition or opposition.”
In a section of the transcript provided by Israel Resilience replete with exclamation marks, Gantz vowed, “When it comes to defending Israel — we are united!!! I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the fight against Iran’s aggression. I am certain he will do the same when I will be the Prime Minister of Israel!!”
But in a possible hint at Netanyahu’s failure to gain widespread support for his opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal, other than from US President Donald Trump, Gantz said that “on his watch” there would be no “appeasement” of the Islamic Republic.
“On my watch there will be no Chamberlain-like Munich agreement with your vicious regime. On my watch, there will be no appeasement. On my watch Iran will not threaten Israel by taking over Syria, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip. Nor will it undermine pragmatic regimes in the Middle East; on my watch — Iran will not have nuclear weapons,” he declared.
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem before the Munich speech, Netanyahu lambasted Gantz for trying to take credit for the prime minister’s assertive policy on the Iranian nuclear program.
“I stood my ground, and that turned the tide of events and produced a historic pivot,” Netanyahu told ministers. “Now there are all sorts of opportunists trying to take advantage, but the public knows perfectly well how to distinguish true leadership from amateurish impersonation.”
Netanyahu, who spent the last three days at a US-led conference in Warsaw, had originally been scheduled to fly to the German city from the Polish capital. But earlier last week he decided to return to Israel instead.
Gantz’s presence on a shared stage with world leaders challenges a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s election campaign ahead of the April nation ballot, which has touted his strong ties with a range of presidents and prime ministers and argued that no one else is capable of leading Israel on the world stage.
But Gantz, while lacking the fluent and accent-free English that Netanyahu possesses, held his own for the 20-minute speech, albeit presenting a security and foreign policy doctrine hard to distinguish from the incumbent’s.
“Today, only 70 years after its establishment, Israel is regionally and globally known as a leader in innovation, ” he said, in a line reminiscent of Netanyahu’s own praise of Israeli high-tech and his stated belief that sharing such innovation can bring about new regional cooperation. “Israel is eager to demonstrate that its evolution from a relatively poor country to a respected member of the OECD can be replicated by other states. Our pragmatic neighbors can and should be a part of such change.”
In his only comments dealing with the Israel-Palestinian conflict (while omitting any explicit mention of “Palestinians” or “Palestine”) Gantz said that Israel seeks peace, but will not compromise on its security considerations.
“Distinguished guests, as you may know, for 38 years I served my nation in uniform. I lost many of my closest friends. I have witnessed up-close the horrors of war. This is why I know how precious peace is,” he said, softening his baritone delivery briefly. “Under my leadership, Israel will always reach its hand out to anyone who seeks peace with us. But with the other hand we will hold the Shield of David very close to our heart. Only a strong and secure Israel can guarantee a stable and long-lasting peace which we all hope to achieve.”
Last week Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called Gantz a “weak leftist,” ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with Israel Resilience, saying that he wants to rule with a right-wing government.
“I will not form a government with Benny Gantz,” the prime minister said at a meeting with a group of religious journalists. “I will be the one to build the coalition, and it will be a nationalistic Likud government, a right-wing government.”
Gantz’s party responded in a statement, saying: “We will establish a Zionist government of hope and unity that will replace Netanyahu.”
Polls show Netanyahu remaining best placed to form a government even if his chief rivals join forces ahead of April’s elections.