For 38 years, Benny Gantz put his life on the line for the sake of his country. His outstanding military career began with a minor role in the security detail protecting Anwar Sadat, when the Egyptian president made his earthshaking visit to Israel in 1977. And it took him — through decades of heroic service as a commando, officer and senior commander in Lebanon, Gaza and beyond, including high-risk operations behind enemy lines — all the way to the office of the chief of staff.
“When I lay in the muddy trenches with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you left Israel to learn English and practice it at fancy cocktail parties,” Gantz sniped, with jarring unfairness, barely a year ago, at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had appointed and praised him as IDF chief, and who he was now entering politics to try to replace.
Over three bitter and divisive election campaigns since last April, Gantz the general-turned-politician came tantalizingly close, but not quite close enough, to reaching the pinnacle in his second career too.
He pitched himself as the purifying alternative to the polluting Netanyahu — Israel’s Mr. Clean to his rival’s Mr. Allegedly Corrupt; an icon of personal restraint compared to Netanyahu’s cigar-smoking hedonism; a selfless figure who had come to serve the nation rather than act like its monarch. He would stand firm, he insisted, against the kind of anti-Arab incitement frequently deployed by the prime minister. He was repulsed by Netanyahu’s mainstreaming of the racist Meir Kahane’s disciples. He was committed to equality for all, including the minorities who feel disenfranchised by Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” law. He rejected Netanyahu’s divisive politics, the demonizing of sectors of the electorate. He would act, he swore, as a dedicated defender of Israel’s democratic values, and in particular the law enforcement hierarchies so battered by the incumbent.
He joined forces with an array of other politicians from center-left (Yair Lapid) to the hawkish right (Moshe Ya’alon) whose sole common goal was the declared imperative to oust the ostensibly dangerous Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office. And at the helm of their Blue and White alliance, he won the support of a quarter of Israeli voters, much the same as Netanyahu’s Likud, in those three rapid-fire elections. Over a million Israelis each time, standing in the polling booth and contemplating the tray of white ballot slips, decided that, yes, it was Benny Gantz they wanted. Benny Gantz, the man who would never sit in government with a prime minister clinging to power while fighting corruption charges. Benny Gantz, the democrat.
And then came Thursday evening.
From a day of dealmaking and deception, dark even by the benighted standards of Israeli politics, Gantz emerged, extraordinarily, as the newly elected speaker of parliament, an interim stop on a path, he indicated, that is now set to take him high into government. Into the embrace, that is, of that same purportedly deplorable Netanyahu he had assured all those voters, all those times, he would avoid. And from there, under the terms of a pact outlined but not finalized, he is supposedly set to succeed Netanyahu some 18 months from now.
In his maiden speech as speaker, and in several subsequent utterances, Gantz has explained his actions in terms that have generated a multitude of impassioned, conflicting responses — from his abandoned allies’ howling their horror at his perfidy, double-dealing and surrender, to his new partners’ praise for his courage; from commentators hailing his sacrifice, to critics sneering at his naiveté.
As Gantz accurately presents it, “these are not normal times, and they require atypical decisions.” Israel is trying to fight off a pandemic, while debilitated by its protracted political deadlock, under a leadership that shows contempt for, and is breeding public distrust in, our democracy.
In one fell swoop, claims the former military chief, he can now begin to right all those wrongs. With him and however many of his loyalists he can shepherd into Netanyahu’s coalition, Israel will have more fine minds to ensure improved handling of the coronavirus crisis. Our political paralysis will finally be over. And there will be a new, strong voice inside government to champion equality and the wide national interest, to stand up against anti-Arab incitement and racism, to protect Israel’s wobbling democracy.
And where more appropriate to begin, he indicated, than freshly seated in the very chair from which his predecessor, Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, as Gantz so graphically put it, “spat in the face” of the High Court judges barely 24 hours earlier, unprecedentedly defying their rulings, resigning, and shuttering the house.
In truth, however, there is a clear danger that what Gantz has done will usher in no cleaner era, no elevated norms.
One can applaud his choosing unity over his own prime ministerial ambitions. One can applaud his laudable assessment that Israel, in the midst of the pandemic, should be spared yet a fourth election if neither he nor Netanyahu can form a stable coalition without the other. One can further applaud his implicit recognition that Netanyahu is mustering all his knowhow, contacts and experience to lead Israel effectively through this health crisis.
But if he ultimately believes that the continued prime ministership of the divisive Netanyahu bolsters unity, surely he should never have placed himself at the head of the opposition. And wouldn’t the principled solution, now, have been to support the Netanyahu coalition from the outside, giving it a safe governing majority until the pandemic is defeated, backing it on matters of national interest, and limiting it elsewhere as an effective opposition? If Netanyahu had rejected this patriotic, emergency arrangement in these atypical times, it would have been the prime minister, not Gantz, self-interestedly plunging the country into an avoidable election at the height of a global health crisis.
Gantz seems to believe he is sacrificing his political career for the good of the nation, placing “Israel above all” as his party’s campaign slogan had it. Ostensible proof of this is to be found in his reported private acknowledgement that he’s not at all sure Netanyahu will honor their as-yet unsigned deal — not at all sure, that is, that Netanyahu will hand over the prime ministership to him come the day. So this, we should conclude, is not about personal ambition.
But in the meantime, the alternative he built — to the Netanyahu who questioned his mental stability and derided him as unfit for leadership; to the Netanyahu that he, Gantz, highlighted as an inciter, a divisive figure tearing Israel apart, a batterer of democracy — that alternative has collapsed. The party leader who booted one of his own Knesset members just weeks ago for contemplating defecting to Likud has orchestrated the defection of his entire faction — shocking, humiliating and discrediting his former allies. It will be many long years before an effective, credible, widely supported opposition rises again.
He is no longer a military chief, whose job is to find the safest path forward, and demand that the rank and file follow. He is a politician now, chosen on the basis of the positions he espoused and the promises he made
Less than a month ago, 1,220,381 Israelis went into polling stations nationwide and voted for Gantz’s Blue and White, a party that had endlessly repeated one solemn vow to the electorate — not to sit in government with Netanyahu. How does breaking that vow sit with his commitment to those voters? (Gantz had already apparently been ready to break another major vow — not to seek a coalition dependent in any way on the 15-strong mainly Arab Joint List.) Not easily, as he himself acknowledges, notwithstanding a snap TV opinion poll on Friday night that showed Blue and White voters backing him 56% to 39%.
His presence in government, if it comes to pass, is unlikely to significantly ease the coronavirus crisis, whose devastating potential Netanyahu recognized more swiftly than most world leaders.
He may hope to constrain some of the government’s other actions — by putting allies into key positions to reduce the influence of the coalition’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox components, for instance, and to change the tone of government interaction with Israel’s minorities. But it is unclear how much influence he will have, heading a group of maybe 15 or so MKs alongside a Netanyahu-led bloc of 58.
And if, as reported on Saturday night, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel from the now-defunct Blue and White’s Telem party, along with Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis, are unsurprisingly also set to join the coalition, Netanyahu will have 61 MKs broadly supportive of his policies, and Gantz will have even less sway. What value, then, in his emergency sacrifice? He will merely have empowered his rival, destroyed the opposition, and rendered himself irrelevant.
Gantz can and does insist that his motives were fine, and they very likely were. But he is no longer a military chief, whose job is to try to find the safest path forward, give the relevant orders, lead from the front and demand that the rank and file follow. The man who risked his life to protect this country for 38 years is a political leader now. He is a servant of the people, elected on the basis of the positions he espoused and the promises he made, and expected — in the fundamental pact between voters and those they choose to represent them — to stand by those positions and honor those promises.
In abandoning his core political pledge and thus inevitably and immediately destroying his party, doesn’t he risk turning another swath of an already mistrustful electorate into cynics, who will take a long time to believe a politician again?
Put in another way, doesn’t Benny Gantz, who so earnestly undertook from that Knesset speaker’s chair on Thursday to restore Israeli democracy, risk placing himself among the ranks of those who are weakening it?