The April 9 elections in Israel have turned out to be a tight race between two Benjamins – Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Benjamin (Benny) Gantz. As of this writing, their two parties – Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White – are running neck and neck in the polls.
If Netanyahu wins and serves past July 16, 2019, he will beat David Ben-Gurion’s record to become the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history (13 years and 127 days). The Tel Aviv-born Netanyahu, 69, is probably the most eloquent leader (especially in English) that Israel has ever had.
On the flip side, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recommended six weeks before the elections that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, pending a hearing. Although Netanyahu denies all the allegations, if he is elected for a third term, he could become the first Israeli leader to face trial while in office. Netanyahu has a daughter from his first marriage (who has three children of her own) and two sons with his third wife, Sara.
Gantz, 59, was born in the southern moshav of Kfar Ahim and served as the IDF’s 20th chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, commanding the army during two tough operations in the Gaza Strip – Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. He plunged into politics in December 2018, when he formed Israel Resilience – and in 2019 announced an alliance with two other former chiefs of staff, Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White list. Under a rotation agreement, Gantz would be prime minister for the first two years of a four-year term, and would then hand over the reins to Lapid.
Gantz got his first taste of dirty politics when he was accused on Facebook by an American Israeli woman named Navarone Jacobs of an inappropriate sexual advance when she was 14 and then became the subject of media speculation over reports that his cellphone had been hacked by Iran. Calling both claims politically motivated, he strongly denied the first and brushed off the second as insignificant.
Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gantz and his wife, Revital, live in Rosh Ha’ayin – a city in central Israel – and have four children.
Gantz has ruled out entering a coalition with Netanyahu unless the latter’s legal situation changes dramatically. For his part, Netanyahu asked if Gantz – the former chairman of a cybersecurity firm that went bankrupt – couldn’t protect his phone, how could he protect the country?
Even though they bashed each other relentlessly during the campaign, it is possible that the Benjamin who wins the election might form a coalition with the Benjamin who loses. When Gantz stepped down as IDF chief in 2011, Netanyahu – who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal – praised him as an “excellent officer and experienced commander.”
When Gantz gave his maiden political speech, which was broadcast live on television on January 29, he hushed supporters when they booed Bibi, and thanked Netanyahu for his service as prime minister over the past decade. But he also slammed the PM for his alleged corruption, vowed to replace him, and declared, “No leader is a king” – playing on the royal title given to Netanyahu by both supporters and adversaries.
A new documentary called “King Bibi” – comprising archives of Netanyahu’s media appearances – examines the meteoric rise of “a controversial figure whom some perceive as Israel’s savior and others as a cynical politician who will stop at nothing to retain his power.”
Although there are a record 47 parties running, the main question facing Israeli voters is who will be the next prime minister – General Gantz or King Bibi?