JERUSALEM — This is a momentous week for Israeli politics. After 12 years as Israel’s longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to finally being toppled. A broad, ragtag coalition of eight opposition parties came to an agreement on Wednesday led by ultranationalist right-wing leader Naftali Bennett and the centrist politician Yair Lapid. The deal also included the support of the Arab Islamist party Raam.
Still, Netanyahu isn’t going down without a fight. Earlier this week, he warned that the proposed coalition would endanger his country’s security.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz has served under Netanyahu’s government since spring 2020, where he’s overseen the latest conflict against Palestinians—including the 11-day bombardment of Gaza in May, which left over 240 dead, including at least 60 children.
Gantz has run against Netanyahu in a bid for the top job in three consecutive elections, which have all been draws. Last spring, in a sudden change of heart, Gantz agreed to a power-sharing coalition deal with Netanyahu which collapsed eight months later.
As one of the most prominent political players in Israel, Gantz is now throwing his weight behind the new coalition government. He’s expected to continue in his role as defense minister under the leadership of both Lapid and Bennett.
VICE News sat down with Gantz in Jerusalem on Wednesday, where he discussed Israel’s standing in the Middle East and around the world, as well as the country’s role in the latest conflict with Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Isobel Yeung: You're heading to the U.S. to talk about a number of things, including the Iran nuclear deal. Why do you believe that deal is a threat to Israel?
Benny Gantz: Iran is the only country that declares Israel's destruction, and is building the means to do it. So as an Israeli citizen, definitely the minister of defense, I should take this threat very seriously. Unfortunately, in the last several decades, all we hear from Iran is threats and more threats. They are supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. They are supporting Jihadi Islamic Palestinian groups. They are supporters of Hamas. And I think that if Iran possesses military nuclear capability, not that it will give them just the opportunity to one day, God forbid, use it, but they may have, they may use it.
The U.S. is obviously Israel's most important ally. You're also going to be requesting one billion dollars in defense weaponry. A number of progressives within the Democratic Party in the U.S. have taken a pretty pro-Palestinian stance and have been very critical of Israel's aggressiveness. I'm wondering whether you are worried that Israel is at risk of losing that special relationship with the U.S.?
I think the bonds between the two countries are very much in place, very much solid. President Biden has been a known friend of Israel for decades already, and I'm sure that he would practice his friendship into the future as well. I'm going to present them with our needs vis a vis the southern front as we have experienced it lately. But we have other elements, other challenges up north and elsewhere. So all this will be presented to the Americans. And I hope that we will get their support. I believe we will.
Recently there has been a lot of anger, I would say internationally across the world. We’ve seen a lot of videos, a lot of images on social media of suffering Palestinians and aggressiveness from the Israelis. And I think that has led to a lot of pushback within the international community.
Yeah, I hear that. Of course, I don’t accept it. Let us not forget the basic reality. We are talking about Hamas. It's a terror organization that holds as hostages its own population. We are trying to fight it as accurately as we can. And unfortunately, and I’m very sad for every casualty but it comes from the very basic fact that they are placing themselves among civilians in the most dense area. So what would one expect from us? To sit here and do nothing or should we try to prevent it? Should we just wait in our homes for the rockets to fall on us or should we do something else? It's true that we are the stronger power in this region, but it doesn't mean that we are not the right one. We are strong, yet right. And every time Hamas or any other terror organization will fight against Israel, we will come back at them, harshly.
You say that Palestinians are held hostage by Hamas and that they are victims of Hamas. I think though most Palestinians within Gaza would say that more than anything, they are victims of Israel and Israel's aggressiveness.
Not the way I see it. It’s Hamas who created what it created in Gaza. It's Hamas who represses these people. I’s Hamas who goes in the street and shoots someone's knee because he didn't do what he told him. It’s not Israel who does all that.
We now know that there will likely be a coalition government, which will oust Benjamin Netanyahu. As his long-time rival, how do you feel about that?
I feel that it's good for Israel. It’s a new start for us. And there are lots of challenges, internal and external to the country that we need to take care of. We should say thank you, Benjamin Netanyahu. We are taking it from here. Thank you for what you did. He did a lot for the state of Israel, and I don't forget that. But it’s about time that we will have a new prime minister, a new government that will concentrate on solving the problems of the country and not just concentrate on its political survivability, which was the case of Benjamin Netanyahu.
That was a very diplomatic and polite answer for someone who's been at loggerheads with this man for a long time.
Yeah, I was trained as a military diplomat for two and a half years of my life.
Benjamin Netanyahu obviously has incredible political survival skills. What happens to him next?
Netanyahu is facing a serious issue with the state court. I hope that he will get out of it OK. I think that's the most serious challenge that he has to face. He will have to control his party if he wants to stay around. No one knows how strong and how long will the next government be able to function. You know, it was Ariel Sharon, one of our former prime ministers, who said you should always stay on the wheel because it’s turning around all the time. So I guess Benjamin Netanyahu will stay on the wheel.
Netanyahu has said that only he can keep Israel safe and that the new coalition government would be a threat to Israel’s security. Do you think that is true?
No. Israel’s strength doesn't come from one person, no matter who he is. Israel's strength is based on Israel’s resilience and Israel’s military strength and Israel's social strength. And I don't think it's bound to one person. Not even if his name is Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both Israel and Hamas have claimed victory in the most recent conflict. Given that hundreds of people have died, tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and a lot of neighborhoods are decimated, what has Israel actually won?
First of all, we inflicted damages to Hamas infrastructure.
Sure, but not enough to prevent another conflict.
I mean, one day we can take over Gaza and stay there for another 10 years. That's an option that we are trying to avoid. So within the limitations of not taking Gaza, I think we have achieved a lot. I’m not saying that we will not take Gaza over once again, because once again, I told you I cannot accept the repetition of these events every few years. So Hamas is risking its own survivability, eventually. But we have achieved all our goals and we knew that is going to be a victory speech by Hamas. We didn’t expect them to have anything else. But I know the details. I know what happened and I’m very satisfied with how the IDF operated and what the IDF has achieved.
This most recent conflict killed over 240 Palestinians, including 67 children. What do you say to the Palestinian families who have lost their most loved ones, lost their livelihoods, lost their homes?
I’m very sorry for the loss of life, which we didn’t want to cause. We have been using techniques to warn the society to evacuate houses before we push them down and things that other militaries are not doing. I suggest for them not to let Hamas operate from in or near their houses.
That's not an option for them, right?
It's a very concentrated area.
Still, if this is my home. Why would I let you have a launcher in my backyard? They know what's in their house. They know what’s in their yards or in their backyards. They are aware of it. Maybe they don’t have an option to reject it. If they continue the way they are doing it and they will shoot at us, we will retaliate.
Even in the middle of the conflict, you said no person, area or neighborhood in Gaza is immune. Do you take responsibility for the disproportionate level of harm that was caused on Palestinians?
No, I think we were very proportional. I think we did exactly what we have to do. I know that we have operated against terror target organizations. We will continue like this in the future.
Hamas and a lot of Palestinians have said that they were acting in self-defense because Palestinian families were facing evictions from their homes. Israeli police used excessive force at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and only then did Hamas fire rockets.
That's the wrong way to show it. First of all, the police didn't enter the mosques before people started to throw stones from there. So actually, the police had to interfere with the risking of the lives of other people around.
You don't feel like there was any excessive force used by the Israeli police?
No, I think it was necessary force. It's not excessive force. Hamas shot rockets, 30 rockets to the area of Jerusalem. Can you give me one country that would say, oh, sorry, let's have a discussion? It's ridiculous.
But if Israelis are allowed to defend themselves, why not Palestinians?
I'm not saying [that]. OK go ahead, defend yourself. This is somebody spitting into it and you're saying it's raining. No it's not raining, it’s somebody spitting at us. Somebody is shooting, shooting missiles at us. That’s the reality as we see it, as we feel it.
Hamas says they still have thousands of rockets at their disposal. They have hundreds of rocket launchers and they’re able to restock their supply and are restocking their supply. If that’s true, how long until the next conflict?
It depends on Hamas. If they continue assaulting us, then it's a matter of weeks or months.
You've spoken about your plans to weaken Hamas and to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. Given the reality on the ground, which is that Hamas is in control and has the power and is more popular than before the conflict, how is that possible?
It depends. I think that the better the situation in the West Bank is, the better we are with the Palestinian Authority. I think the best place to be an Arab in this region is in Israel. And the second place to be an Arab is in the West Bank, and we should try and let them live as much as possible, to flourish and to economically develop themselves and for self governance to the degree it's possible.
There will be a lot of people who disagree when you say that there's no better place to be an Arab than Israel. The latest conflict didn't come out of nowhere; there have been years of blockades in Gaza, decades of occupation in the West Bank, increasing discrimination towards Arabs in Israel itself, and Palestinian families facing eviction from their own homes. Do you think that Israel has some responsibility for dehumanizing Palestinians and making them give up hope?
I totally don’t agree. I don’t think that we are dehumanizing the Palestinians. I think they have the right to exist in their own homes and villages with self governance. When I’m defending Israel, Israeli Arabs or Israeli Jewish. I don’t care. I defend civilians as they are. I think we have to constantly stay in touch with one another in this society and try to close gaps if those are being open. And I disagree with this discrimination portrayed between the Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.
You just don't think that exists?
No, I don’t. I don't think it’s true. I'm traveling around. I’m seeing the facts. I’m seeing how they build houses. I am fighting for them politically to promote planning, to promote education, to promote their medical services, to promote their labor activities.
In recent years, Israeli leaders have shown little interest in a peace process. And a lot of Palestinians say that their lives are miserable because of the blockade. Do you support a two-state solution?
I’m supportive of a two-entities solution because when you say two-state solution, people freeze into some kind of image they have in their minds. So I’m not sure that it's a two-state solution, but definitely two-entities, the Israeli entity and the Palestinian entity, living side by side together with Israeli security superiority over the area, because that's the only way we can guarantee the stability of this area.
You really believe that can happen?
The Palestinians are not going anywhere. Nor are we going to go anywhere. So we must find ways of living together.