In first big interview, Gantz vows he’ll be PM but won’t say what he’ll do there

In first big interview, Gantz vows he’ll be PM but won’t say what he’ll do there

Israel Resilience party head pledges support for attorney general attacked by Netanyahu, but is wary and vague on most major issues at stake in April election

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

After an excerpt from Benny Gantz’s first political interview drew ire from the right when it was released earlier in the week, Yedioth Aharonoth published on Friday the full “personal conversation,” as it was billed.

After further criticism of Gantz’s substance-free response to questions raised about his praise of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, an Israel Resilience spokesperson had told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the full interview would be an “in-depth piece that’s almost 10 pages long, and addresses the important economic, social, security and state issues that are of interest to the public.”

While the Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi and right-wing journalist and comedian Hanoch Daum made for curiously paired questioners, the 7,000-word free-flowing interview did indeed cover a vast range of topics relating to almost every realm of Israeli public discourse.

But Gantz, who is seen as the main potential challenge to a continued Netanyahu government, kept his cards close to his chest on many thorny issues. What he said unequivocally was that “I am going to be prime minister” and “I am going to beat Benjamin Netanyahu.”

On whether he is really left or right, Gantz said that for him “the central question is always the security question,” dodging the issue with platitudes about “bringing people with different beliefs and opinions together.”

On the disengagement, Gantz said that Israel “needed to find a way where it is not controlling the lives of others,” but would not commit either to establishing a Palestinian state or not evacuating further settlements, saying that a good negotiator doesn’t reveal what he thinks ahead of time.

Illustrative image of an Israeli soldier guarding near the Kedumim settlement, with the Palestinian village of Kadum in the background, on November 13, 2009. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Gantz also noted that the question would only be relevant if the Palestinians “wake up” and enter serious negotiations.

Daum referred to a remark made in Gantz’s maiden political speech last week: “You said that we need to strengthen the settlement blocs. But there are settlers who live outside of the blocs. People live in Eli, in Kedumim. Does that mean they should be removed?”

“All of us have experience in the world of negotiations,” Gantz replied. “I don’t think that ahead of time I need to speak in too much detail about what I think and what I don’t think. I can tell you what I’m driven by. I’m driven by what’s in Israel’s interest. I’m driven by the fact that 90% of the people will agree with 90% of the things. I am not waiting. I continue to improve, I continue to strengthen, I start to build.

“I won’t go into questions that are not currently relevant,” he added. “If the Palestinians will one day decide to wake up and join a diplomatic process that is being carried out with the support of countries in the region, with international support — welcome. But I’m not waiting.”

Daum then asked whether that means that if no such negotiations are held, Gantz would unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank, similarly to the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

“I said I’m not waiting,” Gantz added. “I didn’t say it would be unilateral and I don’t mean that it will be unilateral. We will do something constructive. Up until now, my profession has been to destroy, now my role is to build. I will not wait, I will build.”

Still, elsewhere in the interview, Gantz seemed to praise the 2005 disengagement, saying: “It was a legal action. It was approved by the government of Israel and carried out by the IDF and the settlers, with great pain but done very well. We have to take its lessons and implement them in other places.”

A settler gestures from a rooftop at Israeli troops approaching the Jewish settlement of Netzer Hazani, in the Gush Katif bloc of settlements, in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 18, 2005 (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Having evidently learned some political tactics in the month since he launched his party, Gantz would not be drawn on possible mergers before the election, but would also not rule out sitting with either the ultra-Orthodox or Arab parties in a coalition, as long as they are “Zionist.”

Gantz also again dismissed long-denied rumors that his wife is involved with the left-wing Machsom Watch organization. “It’s bullshit. The mother of bullshits. The mother of the mother of bullshits,” he said.

Asked about protests that have been held against the attorney general, calling for him to indict Netanyahu, Gantz said, “Yes, guys, this is a democratic country, people have the right to [protest].” In contrast to the prime minister, Gantz said, he believed that Avichai Mandelblit “is devoted to the law and will not be influenced.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van (not seen) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Having already said that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu if charges were filed against him, Gantz tried his best to avoid clarifying if that would also apply were Mandelblit to announce charges, as expected later this month, but prior to a final hearing which may not conclude for a year.

Gantz repeated three times, “if there is an indictment I will not sit with him,” without expounding further.

While skipping between light-hearted nostalgic banter and pressing questions over serious policy proposals, Artzi and Daum also pushed Gantz to speak about his personal history, having grown up with Holocaust survivor parents, and his religious beliefs. Gantz, careful to the last, described himself as “traditional secular.”

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