Is Gantz really a danger to Netanyahu’s power in Israel?

The war cabinet member’s trip to the US has many wondering.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left Benny Gantz
From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and war cabinet member Benny Gantz [AP Photo]

Beirut, Lebanon – Benny Gantz – the main opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a member of Israel’s war cabinet and the man touted by his supporters as the next prime minister – is in Washington, DC, invited there by the United States government.

Analysts have told Al Jazeera this is a result of its public frustration with Netanyahu and his far-right government, which is leading US President Joe Biden’s administration to turn to Gantz, a former military chief of staff and political centrist, as an ally and he is trying to build on that.

While Gantz may be using this trip to strengthen ties with US officials and capitalise on an Israeli political scene in which Netanyahu is increasingly unpopular, his stated aims are boosting support for Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, and pushing for the release of Israeli captives, according to Israeli officials.

Gantz met US Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Middle East envoy Brett McGurk on Monday and received “sharp and highly critical messages about the humanitarian situation in Gaza”, according to The Jerusalem Post.

He is scheduled for talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.

‘A political parking lot’

Gantz currently leads Netanyahu in opinion polls asking Israelis who they want as their next prime minister.

Despite Netanyahu’s decreasing popularity, there are analysts who believe the prime minister is not politically dead and buried and Gantz’s approval numbers have more to do with his opposition to the incumbent than on his own strength.

“Benny Gantz doesn’t have a lot to offer ideologically,” Eyal Lurie-Pardes, a visiting fellow in the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“He’s a political parking lot right now for people who are frustrated by Netanyahu.”

In July, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Israel in what were described as pro-democracy protests as Netanyahu’s government pushed through legislation that limited the power of the judiciary. In January, the Supreme Court struck it down.

In contrast, Gantz is seen as a moderate figure compared with Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu still has a support base, but many Israelis believe that since 1,139 people died in attacks by Hamas’s Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian armed groups on Israel on October 7, he is prioritising his political survival over the return of the remaining captives taken into Gaza.

Netanyahu is also standing trial on several corruption charges, including breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud in proceedings that will likely continue for several more months.

Anti-Netanyahu protests have picked up again in recent months, largely over his handling of the war on Gaza although the numbers of demonstrators have not been large.

Despite its disapproval of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, the White House has steadfastly backed Israel’s war on Gaza – bypassing Congress twice to send additional military aid, refusing to place conditions on the aid and using its veto at the United Nations Security Council multiple times to kill resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Capitalising on Netanyahu’s unpopularity

Gantz’s party members have urged him to quit Netanyahu’s war cabinet, but voters are split on the issue.

Many believe his presence acts as a counterweight to right-wing elements in the government. Some feel it is time he removes his support from the war cabinet.

Others worry he would be replaced by a far-right figure like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Naming Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to his cabinet caused friction between Netanyahu and the US at the end of 2022, and the coalition he formed then with far-right figures, including members of the settler movement, is seen as one of the reasons the US prefers Gantz.

People stand in front of police officer during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government
Israeli police hold back protesters demonstrating against Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2024 [Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

While Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are often painted as fringe figures, Lurie-Pardes said: “They are not [fringe figures]. They’re very powerful ministers who represent the third largest party in the Israeli parliament.”

Many political figures in Israel are looking to capitalise on Netanyahu’s unpopularity and have begun calling for elections.

If elections were held now, a recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 13 showed, Gantz’s National Unity party would clinch 39 seats in the Knesset, compared with 17 for Netanyahu’s Likud party.

But should elections be announced, several other candidates would likely enter the race and take away Gantz’s fire.

Tamir Sorek, a Middle East history professor at Pennsylvania State University, told Al Jazeera, that while “Benny Gantz might represent the US interests in the Israeli government”, “Netanyahu doesn’t really need him for his coalition, so he doesn’t have the same leverage as the extreme right parties have.”

Netanyahu’s terms

Many more Palestinians could die in Gaza as Israel continues to bomb indiscriminately and prevent adequate aid from entering the small, besieged enclave that is home to more than two million Palestinians.

Palestinian children wait to get food from an aid distribution team in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza, on February 26
Palestinian children wait to get food from an aid distribution team in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza on February 26, 2024 [AFP]

The UN is warning of famine for at least half a million people.

As protests against the war continue in cities around the world, including many US cities, and voters make their voices heard in other ways, the Biden administration seems to be shifting the blame onto Netanyahu.

Biden recently went on a late-night American talk show and said Netanyahu’s “incredibly conservative government” was losing international support.

US media have reported that Biden privately described Netanyahu as an “a******” on at least three occasions. There have also been reports that both Biden and Blinken are upset by the destruction and death in Gaza.

Meanwhile, pressure is increasing on the US and Israel for a ceasefire. Biden recently said he hopes a ceasefire will be announced soon and Harris called for an immediate ceasefire on Sunday. But as long as the US fails to make any material changes or place conditions on its aid, analysts believe the war will likely drag on.

“Harris’s words were the harshest yet [by the Biden administration],” Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, told Al Jazeera.

“But [Netanyahu] is very good at watching not what the Americans say but what they do.”

Source: Al Jazeera