Birthplace: Tel Aviv, Israel
Ministerial Positions: Prime Minister (2009-), Minister of Finance (2003-2005), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2003, 2012-2013, 2015-2019), Prime Minister (1996-1999)
Now vying for his fifth term as prime minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has cast a long shadow over Israeli politics for nearly three decades. US-educated and a leading commando in Israel’s special forces, he served as ambassador to the UN in the 1980s and rose quickly through the Likud ranks, becoming party chair in 1993. Netanyahu led the party’s fierce opposition to the Oslo process and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing extremist and a wave of suicide bombings, Netanyahu’s opposition to the Oslo Accords contributed to his surprise victory over Labor’s Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections.
As prime minister, Netanyahu opposed making concessions to the Palestinians, though he signed the Hebron and Wye River agreements with the Palestinian Authority during his tenure. He was defeated by Labor’s Ehud Barak in 1999 in Israel’s only direct election for prime minister. In 2002, Netanyahu returned to politics to serve in Ariel Sharon’s government, and again led the Likud after Sharon formed the breakaway Kadima Party to push forward the country’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 after Kadima candidate Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, and was re-elected to new terms in 2013 and again in 2015.
Netanyahu has now served without interruption as Israel’s prime minister for over a decade. In that time, he has become an absolutely dominant figure in Israeli politics and society, towering over all opposition rivals and all of his colleagues in Likud and on the Right. During this period, and particularly during his most recent term, Netanyahu has drifted further and further to the right. To help assure his own political survival, he has embraced the settlement movement and built an atmosphere of fear, intolerance and censorship directed at Palestinians, civil society activists, leftists, journalists and all those who challenge his authority and right-wing ideology. He has increasingly sought to portray himself as virtually synonymous with the power and prestige of the state — the one “indispensable” man who can keep Israel safe and strong.
In late February 2019, following years of investigations, Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of corruption, bribery and fraud in three high-profile cases. The most serious charges allege that Netanyahu promised political favors to prominent businessmen and media moguls in exchange for favorable media coverage and support. Now, the prime minister is desperate to win re-election in order to maintain his political position and potentially take steps that could shield him from conviction — and a possible prison sentence.
Embracing the kind of conspiratorial, demagogic rhetoric tactics associated with Trump and Nixon, Netanyahu seems willing to do or say almost anything in order to tear down his opponents and remain in office. Most notably, he orchestrated an agreement ensuring that the ultra-racist, extreme-right Otzma Yehudit Party will enter the next Knesset, in the hopes that the votes for this party could help secure the overall number of seats Netanyahu needs to form a new right-wing coalition government.
Party: Hosen L’Yisrael (part of the Blue and White slate)
Birthplace: Kfar Ahim, Israel
Ministerial Positions: None; IDF Chief of Staff (2011-2015)
A popular IDF chief of staff with no political record before the past year, Gantz has emerged as the most serious rival and challenger to Netanyahu and the Likud in over a decade. Born in a moshav in south-central Israel, Gantz enjoyed a distinguished career in the IDF for over 30 years, ultimately serving as Chief of Staff from 2011-2015. During that time, Gantz presided over two major conflicts with Hamas in Gaza — Operations Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge.
Gantz entered politics in early 2019, founding the Hosen L’Yisrael (“Israel Resilience”) Party without a clear political platform or ideology beyond the desire to serve as a more centrist alternative to Netanyahu and the right. His campaign has placed strong emphasis on his security expertise as well as on his respect for traditional Israeli values and institutions of the state, presenting a more moderate and even-keeled contrast to Netanyahu’s demagogic persona. Gantz has largely drawn a base from the center-left but also seeks to outflank Netanyahu and the Likud from the right on the security questions, hoping to peel off some of their “soft right” voters.
By signing a coalition agreement with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, along with fellow former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz has built a formidable centrist alliance that, according to many polls, stands a good chance of finishing ahead of Likud and becoming Israel’s largest party. Under his agreement with Lapid, Gantz would serve as prime minister for the first two and half years of the next government, before Lapid rotated into the position. Ya’alon, a former Likud minister and avowed opponent of the two-state solution, would serve as defense minister.
Because of the range of opinions within Blue and White, it’s difficult to predict how strongly a Gantz-led government would pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians. Gantz has said that resolving the conflict should be a top priority, and that Palestinians and Israelis have to find a way to work together, though he has not specifically endorsed a two-state solution. He has also opposed the evacuation of settlement blocs and indicated that Israel would need to maintain a permanent military presence in the Jordan Valley under any peace agreement. While Gantz has spoken in favor of restraint in military engagements, his willingness to use force during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge was a key focus of his campaign ads. One ad boasted of sending areas of Gaza “to the stone ages,” while another displayed a rising counter of “terrorists killed” overlaid with footage from Palestinian funerals.
While Gantz’s public record on many issues is thin, he has intensified his criticism of Netanyahu to include accusations of corruption, incitement, deception and fear-mongering. After Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for corruption, Gantz called on the prime minister to resign and said that he could not serve in any coalition with Netanyahu.
Party: Yesh Atid (part of the Blue and White slate)
Birthplace: Tel Aviv, Israel
Ministerial Positions: Minister of Finance (2013-2014)
Yair Lapid catapulted onto the Israeli political scene in 2012 with his newly-founded Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party. Son of the late Tommy Lapid — former justice minister and chair of the secular Shinui Party — Lapid followed his father into politics after working for over twenty years as a popular television anchor, journalist and author.
Upon entering politics, Yesh Atid’s appeal to the center and focus on government reform and “equal share of the burden” for Israeli citizens won Lapid the second-most seats in the Knesset and the position of finance minister in the Netanyahu coalition. Though he succeeded in passing legislation to end military service exceptions for the ultra-Orthodox, his economic policies were less successful and his popularity suffered as a result. After Lapid and Netanyahu were unable to reach a compromise over the budget and the “Jewish State Bill,” Netanyahu fired Lapid from the government and initiated new elections.
In the 2015 elections Lapid’s party fell to 11 seats and entered the opposition. During Netanyahu’s most recent term, Lapid has struggled to present himself as a leading challenger and prime ministerial contender. While his party has appeal for some on the center and center-left, Lapid has largely remained silent or vague on many key questions of foreign policy and security, undermining his stature. After the 2019 elections were called, he tried to present himself as the natural leader of the center-left camp. Ultimately though, Lapid bowed to polls and public pressure and agreed to serve as the number two on the joint “Blue and White” slate, led by fellow centrist Benny Gantz along with former IDF Chiefs of Staff Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Under his agreement with Gantz, Lapid would serve as foreign minister during the first two and a half years of a “Blue and White” government, and would then rotate into the prime minister’s chair for the remainder of the term.
Lapid has said that his decision to partner with Gantz was motivated by their joint desire to deny Netanyahu another term and to keep the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party from entering the next government. While Blue and White’s other top leaders — Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi — are seen as stolid former military men, Lapid brings to the slate more charisma and comfort with public speaking and the media.
Because Lapid is closely associated with efforts to end military service exceptions for the ultra-Orthodox, he is seen as an antagonist by that community. Ultra-Orthodox party leaders have claimed that they would not join a governing coalition including Lapid — potentially complicating the ability of “Blue and White” to form the next government.