Gantz launches his election campaign

Benny Gantz speaks during the presentation of his election campaign. Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan

BENJAMIN Netanyahu’s main challenger in the election launched his campaign on Tuesday, saying he will unite a divided society and “seek peace” with the Palestinians.

Benny Gantz positioned himself as a tough former army Chief of Staff, who will try for a peace deal, but also be prepared to act with force if necessary in the “harsh Middle East” where “nobody shows mercy on the weak”.

Before he took the stage in Tel Aviv, the jingle of his new party, Israeli Resilience, blasted on the sound system. “There isn’t right or left anymore,” says the jingle, “just Israel above everything”.

His speech included a pointed critique of Netanyahu’s Israel. “Politics are ugly, and the public arena has become poisoned,” Gantz said. “I have looked in depth at today’s self-absorbed leadership. It is not interested in you, and not in us.”

Today’s leadership encourages “incitement, subversion and hatred”, and he called for a new leadership “which will create a united, unified, cohesive society”.

Shortly before the speech Gantz announced a coup. He has recruited Moshe Yaalon, another former Chief of Staff, who also served as minister of defence, to run with his party.

This is seen as shaking Netanyahu’s image as Israel’s strongest candidate on security matters.

Netanyahu concentrated this week on solidifying his right-wing voter base. He went to Gush Etzion in the West Bank, planted a tree, and promised to never uproot settlers.

“No one will be uprooted from his home,” he said. “There is an idea that the way to achieve peace with the Arabs is to be uprooted from our land. This is a sure way to achieve the opposite of the dream. Insofar as it depends on me, there will be no uprooting of communities and there will be no cessation of settlements, but the complete opposite.”

He also delighted settlers in Hebron, and their supporters, by ending an arrangement that has seen an international observer force stationed there for the last 22 years.

The Temporary International Presence in Hebron has angered settlers and some other Israelis by criticising IDF conduct.

Netanyahu refused to give the until-now routine approval for its activities and said: “We will not allow the continuation of an international force that acts against us.”

NATHAN JEFFAY