“No Israeli leader is a king,” says Benny Gantz, the man hoping to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On April 9, Israelis will go to the polls for an election that will decide whether it’s time for the leader many know as King Bibi to leave the stage. Netanyahu is fighting for a new mandate and a fifth term.
This may well be Bibi’s last stand. The country’s Attorney General has announced he intends to indict him on fraud, bribery and breach-of-trust charges in three separate criminal cases, although formal charges can’t be filed until after a hearing that won’t begin until votes have been cast. Gantz, Netanyahu’s former army chief, has mounted a formidable challenge–partnering with Netanyahu’s former Finance Minister Yair Lapid to form a centrist alliance. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been forced to turn to far-right parties to find potential coalition partners.
Gantz is a compelling character. He lacks Netanyahu’s charisma and grandiosity. He has tried to appeal to voters as a fresh face, free from past political entanglements. The child of Holocaust survivors, he tends to speak softly and carefully, even when calling the Prime Minister a would-be monarch. It’s an effective contrast with Netanyahu, a man of cigars and champagne. “I have always kept my hands clean,” Gantz says.
Despite sharply contrasting personal styles, it’s unclear how much they differ on actual policy issues. In part, that’s because Gantz grants very few interviews and remains deliberately vague on economic plans. It’s also because on security policy, he has worked hard to convince voters that he’s neither soft nor a man of the left, as his former boss portrays him.
Like Netanyahu, Gantz has avoided committing himself for or against an independent Palestinian state, but he also wants voters to believe he’ll be as uncompromising as Netanyahu in facing down adversaries. He talks tough on Hamas, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizballah. He boasts about the aggressiveness of operations he commanded in Gaza and the number of “terrorists” his troops have killed there. He promises to keep Jerusalem undivided, the Golan Heights defended and the West Bank under full Israeli security control.
He refers to his alliance with Lapid as Blue and White, for the colors of Israel’s flag. In a country where a dozen army chiefs have entered politics and two have become Prime Minister, national security remains a national priority. And Gantz’s strategy makes sense, because Netanyahu’s tough stance on security has worked for Israel–even as it infuriates his critics, foreign and domestic.
It might not be enough. There’s a reason Netanyahu is just one election victory away from replacing founding father David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. He’s a shrewd politician with both a talent for exploiting grievance and a record of genuine accomplishment. Over the past decade, he has successfully wooed the Presidents of both the U.S. and Russia. He has improved relations with the Arab world without offering much to Palestinians. He has courted India and China. Israel has remained secure, and its economy has proved resilient and strong. His party, Likud, has held the Prime Minister’s office for 31 of the past 42 years. Gantz, on the other hand, has no political experience.
But in an era when voters in the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere have voted against their political establishments in favor of transformative change, Israeli voters may look beyond policy proposals and past successes to boost a new voice.
This appears in the March 18, 2019 issue of TIME.
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