Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, speaks during an election campaign rally in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 25, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 February 2020

Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

  • Gantz makes election issue of Netanyahu indictment
  • Netanyahu accuses ex-general of weakness

JERUSALEM: Former military chief Benny Gantz portrays himself as a straight-shooter who will restore simple values to Israel if he wins power in the country’s third election in less than a year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Gantz wants to oust in Monday’s election, once praised him as “an officer and a gentleman” when his government appointed him Chief of Staff of the armed forces eight years ago.
The tone is very different now.
Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, has been attacking Netanyahu’s character, mainly over corruption charges facing Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party has branded Gantz a weak leftist.
Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin on March 17, just two weeks after the election. Netanyahu, who at 70 is a decade older than Gantz, denies any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a witch-hunt.
“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”
But while Blue and White has talked up Gantz’s military background, Likud has sought to portray their opponent as soft on Iran and too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.
Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University political scientist, said Israel still appeared to be split, reflecting the inconclusive outcome of elections in April and September last year in which neither party could form a ruling coalition.
Blue and White led Likud in opinion polls for weeks during this campaign but recent surveys have shown Likud pulling slightly ahead.
“The trial is super-important... the center and left in Israel is going against Netanyahu,” Talshir said. “But his (Netanyahu’s) own base is rallying around Netanyahu.”
Tall and athletic, with a fondness for folk singing and motorcycle riding, Gantz was a consensus figure for Israelis when chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015.
But what he would do in power is not entirely clear, as he has sent mixed messages.
He casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks.
But while Palestinians may prefer Gantz to Netanyahu, there is little fondness for him after two wars in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave, while Gantz was in charge of the Israeli military. About 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting.
He has also publicly embraced US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians for what they see as pro-Israel bias.
While Netanyahu holds rallies around the country exhorting his right-wing supporters to turn out, Gantz’s party believes some may be persuaded to peel away by a cross-partisan appeal to “proper conduct.” “Our polls indicate that a considerable number of Likud supporters are unhappy with the situation and are wavering,” Yoaz Hendel, one of the party’s lawmakers, told Reuters. “They are part of our focus.”
Gantz’s “Mr Clean” image took a knock last week when police announced an investigation into the conduct of a now-defunct security consultancy that he chaired after he left the military.
Gantz is not a suspect in the case, but Netanyahu seized on it to try to undermine his less experienced opponent.
Gantz has also made occasional stumbles in campaign interviews, getting an interviewer’s name wrong and stammering slightly while collecting his thoughts.
Netanyahu has used these stumbles as ammunition to accuse Gantz as lacking the capacity for quick thinking.
“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz responded brusquely during a televised speech on Wednesday. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”

Russian bombers over Idlib: Large-scale operation on the horizon?

Updated 2 min 36 sec ago

Russian bombers over Idlib: Large-scale operation on the horizon?

  • According to local media, two Russian Su-24 bombers recently landed at the Khmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia governorate, without any official notice.

ANKARA: The Russian military’s redeployment of frontline bombers to Syria has sparked debate about whether a new Russian operation is imminent in the country’s volatile northwestern region.

However, the experts to whom Arab News spoke said they do not expect a large-scale military move from Russia — partly because of the potential health risks that any such operation would involve in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to local media, two Russian Su-24 bombers recently landed at the Khmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia governorate, without any official notice. Su-24s have mostly been used in Syria for attacks against rebel targets. An Su-24 was also shot down by the Turkish military in October 2015, triggering a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow that went on for months.

In 2017’s Astana agreement, Turkey pledged to rid Idlib province of all UN-designated terror organizations, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).

In Moscow on March 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached a fragile cease-fire agreement in northwestern Syria, where escalating violence looked set to push forces from their two countries into open conflict.

However, while Turkey’s major aim is to establish safe zones in northern Syria in which to settle the millions of Syrian refugees it currently hosts, Moscow’s primary expectation from Ankara is the removal of the HTS and related groups from Idlib. The HTS — designated as a terror group by Turkey in August 2018 — refused to comply with the Moscow cease-fire deal as it is currently in control of large territories in Idlib.

According to the Kremlin, HTS was behind the local protests that obliged Turkish and Russian troops to shorten the route of their joint patrol on the M4 highway. Therefore, from the Russian point of view, the HTS and other radical groups are seen as legitimate targets that remain outside any cease-fire deal.

However, the US does not currently share Moscow’s view of the HTS. On Feb. 5, Washington’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said, “The Russians claim that (the HTS) constantly launch attacks on the Russians. While HTS did not accept — or was not part of — the Sochi cease-fire agreement from 2018, we have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians. The Russians use this as an excuse.”

Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, said Iran-backed militias and the Syrian regime have been violating the cease-fire agreement for the past 27 days. Iran — one of the countries most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — is Syria’s main regional ally, with Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside Syrian regime forces.

“There are reports of a military build-up of Iranian militias in the countryside (near) Aleppo,” he told Arab News. “Officially, the cease-fire has not ended, but I do not think it will continue as Russian warplanes and regime air forces were flying in Idlib airspace on Thursday, although no bombing has been recorded yet.

Navvar Saban, a military expert from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, does not expect any all-out military operation to be mounted amid ongoing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The current cease-fire is not strong; it just postpones any ground operation for the time being,” Saban told Arab News. “There have been sporadic violations in various parts of Idlib province over recent days. Small-scale clashes and shelling against HTS or similar groups still continue in the area where even the Russians don’t have full control over the regime.”

For Saban, the presence of Iran-backed militia working side-by-side with the Syrian army might discourage anyone from mounting a full-scale operation that could trigger a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 among troops.

On March 23, the second Russian-Turkish joint patrol of a section of the M4 was completed.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently reiterated that Russia will not be satisfied by purely cosmetic changes to the HTS.

“We hope that our Turkish partners will continue their efforts to separate moderate opposition from extremists and take measures to neutralize the latter. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the renaming of groups — changing their window dressing — does not change their essence as terrorists. There must be no illusions that we are talking about internationally acknowledged terrorists, regardless of whether they call themselves Al Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra or Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham,” Zakharova said.

Mehmet Emin Cengiz, a research assistant at the Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said, “Russia has been prioritizing a military solution for Idlib from the very beginning and it does not make a distinction between moderates and radicals. Thus, the province will face new aggression from the Syrian regime and its main backer, even if the HTS rebrands or dissolves.”

But Cengiz, too, does not expect any full-scale operation in the near future, mainly due to the ongoing health crisis in a region that lacks the medical facilities to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.