Benny Gantz set to fight Netanyahu in Israel elections

Israel's Gantz vows to fight in election despite shrinking support

It will be the fourth time in less than two years that he seeks to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz, leader and candidate of the Israel Resilience party. Credit: AFP

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday declared his intention to fight again in March general elections, despite plunging poll numbers and defections from his centrist Blue and White party.

It will be the fourth time in less than two years that he seeks to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's longest-serving prime minister.

Netanyahu remains in power after Blue and White lawmakers and a cabinet minister quit, with many saying Gantz must step down if the party is to have any future.

But Ganz was defiant in a televised address on Tuesday evening.

"I founded... Blue and White and I intend to continue with it," he said.

He appeared to concede that he might not be at the head of whatever alliance could replace Netanyahu's current coalition and thus would not himself serve as premier.

"In the coming elections there is one party and one leader that will lose and many parties and many leaders who will win, and they will join together to form the next government," he said.

The snap election called last week marked the messy breakup of the troubled political marriage between the men who had previously faced off in three inconclusive polls, in April and September 2019 and March 2020.

A coalition pact signed following the last round mandated a revolving premiership with Netanyahu, in power since 2009, ruling for the first 18 months while Gantz served as defence minister and "alternate prime minister", a specially created title.

The two were then to switch places.

Critics warned Gantz that Netanyahu was unlikely to honour the agreement while former allies headed into the opposition, refusing to serve under Netanyahu, who is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu denies the charges.

The latest to jump ship was justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, who joined a new centrist party formed by veteran Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai.

Huldai became mayor in 1998 and was elected for his fifth consecutive five-year term in 2018.

He launched his party, "The Israelis" in a live-streamed event Tuesday evening, as Israel is under coronavirus lockdown.

The new party will be fighting for many of the same voters as Blue and White and is likely to further weaken it.

Like Gantz in the past three elections, Huldai pledged to fight corruption and heal rifts in society.

"I came here this evening to announce the founding of a new party," he said.

"It is possible to run Israel differently and we need to run Israel differently."

Netanyahu is also facing a new political challenge, from influential right-winger Gideon Saar who defected from Likud to form his own New Hope party.

Polls suggest New Hope is closing in on Likud. A survey published by Channel 12 TV on Sunday predicted it could 19 seats in the 120-member parliament, running second after Likud at 28.

Gantz's Blue and White languished in eighth place, with just five seats expected.