Israel's Gantz tests Netanyahu partnership in Washington

Israeli Emergency cabinet minister and opposition politician Benny Gantz addresses the press, in Kiryat Shmona
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By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benny Gantz, the Israeli war cabinet member visiting Washington this week, tells a story of how his mother, a Holocaust survivor, once had an operation in Germany performed by a Palestinian doctor from Gaza.

The story encapsulates the hope for reconciliation that motivates optimists in the Middle East but which has been cruelly tested by the war with Gaza that erupted on Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israel's history.

Gantz, 64, who leads a centrist party that now holds a commanding lead in the opinion polls, joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emergency cabinet last year. He says the fact that he was willing to join a unity government with the right wing Netanyahu and his nationalist religious allies, showed the scale of the crisis facing Israel.

While Gantz has been as adamant as any other leader in Israel that the war can only end when Hamas is destroyed, he is far more open to dialogue with the Palestinians than Netanyahu and his allies from the settler movement like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich or Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Despite the international alarm at the mounting death toll in Gaza, he is unlikely to deviate from the government's path of continuing the war until final victory.

But as U.S. and international pressure grows for a revival of efforts to reach a two state solution, Gantz's willingness to think about a political end to the conflict has brought the divisions more clearly into focus.

Gantz is due to meet both Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the fact that it is he, rather than Netanyahu, who is making the visit has caused a storm. Netanyahu's relations with U.S. President Joe Biden have been so strained that more than a year after taking office, he has still not received an invitation to visit Washington.

Anonymous briefers have told Israeli outlets "there is only one prime minister" and the media have reported that Netanyahu had forbidden Israel's ambassador in the United States from supporting the visit.

"It's a shame this trip wasn't coordinated in advance with the Prime Minister," Smotrich told a faction meeting in parliament on Monday, describing Gantz as a "weak link" in the government and calling on him to openly declare his opposition to a Palestinian state.

"Gantz is playing into the hands of the Biden administration and is actually promoting their plan to establish a Palestinian state," Smotrich said.

While the shock of Oct. 7 has put the normal rules of politics on hold, Netanyahu faces the anger of the majority of Israelis who blame him for the security failures that allowed the devastating attack, that killed some 1,200 people.

Surveys show Gantz's National Unity Party a clear favourite to come out on top in any election held today, with a majority of voters judging that Netanyahu's main motivation for continuing the war was his own political survival, according to a Channel 13 poll on Monday.


A strong opponent of Netanyahu's drive to overhaul the judiciary which risked tearing Israel apart last year, Gantz has clashed frequently with his partners on the hard right, including Smotrich and on occasion the prime minister himself.

But he said that the unprecedented threat facing the country after Oct. 7 had prompted him to join forces with his rivals.

"This is not a political partnership I am in," he told a group of journalists in a briefing last year. "There is no way I would stand aside and play with politics under such circumstances."

Alongside Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, the other main member of the war cabinet, and Gadi Eizenkot, another centrist former general, he has defended the Israeli military and security establishment from attack by Netanyahu allies.

Critics say such attacks are a means of diverting criticism from the prime minister himself.

A former paratrooper who commanded the elite Shaldag commando unit, Gantz spent most of his career in the military. As army chief of staff in 2012, he oversaw an eight day-operation in the Gaza Strip that began with the killing of the chief of Hamas' military wing in Gaza.

That conflict was part of a series of more or less limited confrontations between Israel and Hamas that had marked Israel's relations with the Palestinians ever since the Islamist movement took power in Gaza after a brief factional war in 2007.

The war that began on Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen broke through the security fence around Gaza and tore through the Israeli communities just outside, killing some 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 as hostages, was different.

Israel has responded with a bombing campaign that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, drawing increasing alarm even from firm allies like the United States.

Five months into the conflict, attention has increasingly turned to the situation that will follow the end of the war and here, Gantz's feeling that a political solution would have to be found may make him easier for Washington to deal with.

Gantz said he had once told Mahmoud Abbas, the 87-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, who is cordially detested by many Israeli leaders, that each of them no doubt dreamed the other would disappear.

"But we are both here. That is not going to change."

(Additional reporting by Steven Scheer, Editing by William Maclean)