Leaving for Brazil, Netanyahu swipes at ‘leftist’ challenger Gantz

PM places up-and-coming rival in left-center political camp, pushing back against indications that former IDF chief will attempt to snatch votes from Likud voter base

Then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Navy ceremony on September 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Then-IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Navy ceremony on September 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired an opening salvo on Thursday in what many expect to be an aggressive Likud campaign against the new party of former IDF chief Benny Gantz, painting the ex-general as a leftist.

“I don’t get involved in how the left divides its votes,” Netanyahu told reporters on his plane to Brazil Thursday night.

The prime minister’s six-day trip is the first-ever by an Israeli leader to the largest nation in Latin America.

Netanyahu’s swipe was a response to Gantz’s reported plans to appeal in his campaign to center-right voters who usually vote for Likud.

Gantz formally registered his new political party, Israel Resilience, on Thursday, capping months of speculation and polls that show him as the only person capable of mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu — albeit as head of an existing party.

Gantz’s political views remain largely a mystery, but most surveys place him in the center-left camp, with his entry to the race snatching most votes from Zionist Union and Yesh Atid.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, center, and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, right, in southern Israel on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

But this week, reports surfaced in the Hebrew-language media that Gantz had struck a deal with former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. According to the reports, the two ex-army chiefs, each helming their own party, have agreed to combine their Knesset lists.

The reported alliance, which has not yet been confirmed by either man, may mark a shift rightward for Gantz. Ya’alon, a former supporter of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, later came to criticize the peace talks and joined Likud ahead of the 2009 elections.

Gantz has said in the past that resolving the conflict with the Palestinians should be a priority for the Israeli government.

Gantz on Thursday officially unveiled his new party, called Hosen Leyisrael in Hebrew, which translates as “resilience for Israel.” A spokesperson for the party said it would be known in English as the Israel Resilience Party.

Ya’alon has become a strident Netanyahu critic since leaving Likud in 2016 after he was replaced at the Defense Ministry by Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman.

Gantz and Ya’alon reportedly don’t want to be painted as left-wing in the early stages of the campaign. They are believed to be looking to establish their new alliance as an attractive alternative for right-wing voters to a Netanyahu-led Likud.

Earlier this week, Gantz reportedly rejected an offer by Zionist Union leaders to head the center-left list despite polls showing the party led by him coming within a few Knesset seats of Likud in the April 9 vote.

View of the Knesset’s Plenary Hall during a session for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament on December 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He has also been reluctant to accept purported offers of a political alliance from Hatnua leader MK Tzipi Livni and former prime minister and ex-army chief Ehud Barak, according to media reports.

Polls this week have shown Gantz as the current favorite among voters in any contest against Netanyahu — though no poll has shown a Gantz-led party actually beating a Likud-led Netanyahu.

The Knesset voted to dissolve itself on Wednesday and set April 9 as the date of the next Israeli elections.

Netanyahu’s trip to Brazil is timed to coincide with Jair Bolsonaro’s January 1 inauguration as president in the Brazilian capital Brasilia.

Despite reports Netanyahu would shorten his trip to head back to Israel to campaign, the prime minister’s staff said Thursday that Netanyahu would remain in the country for the inauguration ceremony.

Netanyahu will first go to Rio de Janeiro for a meeting with Bolsonaro then travel to Brasilia for the January 1 inauguration, according to his office.

Other prominent dignitaries scheduled to attend the ceremony include US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Bolsonaro, 63, a right-wing populist who has sometimes been compared to US President Donald Trump, has been a self-proclaimed friend of Israel, announcing in November that he intends to relocate the Brazilian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Jair Bolsonaro, then a presidential candidate with the Social Liberal Party, waves after voting in the presidential runoff election in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Silvia izquierdo)

Netanyahu hailed the “profound change” in ties with Israel promised by Bolsonaro.

“I’m glad that we can open a new era in Israel’s relationship with this superpower,” he said, describing Brazil as “a vast nation that represents vast potential for Israel, including in the economic, security and diplomatic realms.”

While Bolsonaro promised to move the embassy during his campaign and shortly afterward, he later appeared to backtrack under domestic and international pressure.

In late November, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president-elect’s son, said the embassy would be relocated, but said a time-frame for the move had not been set.

An Arab ministerial delegation plans to travel to Brazil in January to convince Bolsonaro not to relocate the embassy, an official Palestinian source said on Thursday.

“An Arab ministerial delegation intends to travel to Brazil in January to meet the new president” and convince him not to move the embassy, the official told The Times of Israel.

Demonstrators light flares and hold Palestinians flags as they protest against clashes in Gaza and the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP/Andre Penner)

Bolsonaro has also said he opposes the existence of the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia, and plans to close the mission.

The Israeli government considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital and has encouraged countries to relocate their embassies to there. Meanwhile, the Palestinians seek East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinian officials say Brazil and the Palestinians have historically maintained solid relations.

Brazil recognized the State of Palestine in 2010.

While in Brazil, Netanyahu is expected to meet senior officials in the Brazilian government as well as leaders of the country’s Jewish community.

Netanyahu will be accompanied by his son Yair, a controversial figure who frequently opines on political questions on social media.

The Netanyahu family has played a growing role in Israeli diplomatic affairs in recent months, with the premier’s wife Sara recently returned from an official diplomatic visit to Guatemala.

Yair’s travel expenses are being paid by the family, Netanyahu’s office said Thursday.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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