Immediately before Blue and White leader Benny Gantz took the stage Saturday night at the Tel Aviv rally marking the anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a short clip was shown from the slain premier’s speech on the night of his murder at the very same spot 24 years before.
“Violence gnaws away at the root of democracy. It must be condemned, denounced, and isolated. There can be disagreements, but decisions can only be made in democratic elections,” Rabin, his gravelly tones echoing from giant screens placed around the square that now carries his name, said with an all-too-prophetic pathos.
The clip provided a piercing, eerie opening to this year’s rally, held at another moment of divisive and polarizing public discourse following back-to-back elections. And with Gantz later quoting the same phrases in his own address, it offered a clear point of comparison between the former and designated prime ministers.
Gantz’s similarly considered tone and delivery may have come across as slightly labored, and fell short of the warmth and grit that Rabin was able to project in his public speeches. But it was a comparison that the would-be premier was clearly keen to evoke.
Echoing Rabin’s opening remarks 24 years ago, the Blue and White chief began his speech by telling the crowd, “as Rabin said, I’m also a little emotional” to stand before so large a gathering at so resonant an event.
After appearing to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over its lackluster response to rocket fire from Gaza over the weekend, Gantz mentioned Rabin again, promising, “We will restore deterrence and we will know how to fight, but we will also know how to utilize that deterrence and how to restore hope. Just as Yitzhak did.”
Then, drawing a direct parallel between himself and his fellow former Israel Defense Force chief, he added, “Like the late Yitzhak Rabin, I and my friends in the leadership of Blue and White also came to the leadership of the state from the post of chief of staff. We commanded soldiers and educated generations of commanders. We led soldiers to victories and successes on the battlefield. And we accompanied families on the painful journey of grief and farewell to a fallen son.”
Finally, before concluding the speech, Gantz quoted Rabin’s address to the US Congress in 1994 after signing a peace treaty with Jordan. This was the address in which Rabin declared, “I, IDF no. 30743, retired lieutenant-general Yitzhak Rabin, I, who sent regiments into the fire and soldiers to their deaths, I say to you, Your Majesty, the King of Jordan, and I say to you, American friends: Today we are embarking on a battle that has no dead and no wounded, no blood and no anguish. This is the only battle that is a pleasure to wage – the battle for peace.”
Gantz paraphrased it with his own personal details and stated mission, declaring: “I, IDF no. 2055891 , retired lieutenant-general Benny Gantz, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, and a soldier in the army of peace; I, who sent regiments into the fire and soldiers to their deaths, I say to you, the people of Israel: Today we are embarking on the most important battle — the batter for peace among ourselves.”
To some of the tens of thousands who attended, Gantz laid it on a little thick.
“It was a good speech but I think he tried too hard to sound like Rabin,” said Uri Dishnov, a Tel Aviv resident who said he had been to the square for the rally most years since the assassination. “And let’s be honest, he’s no Rabin.”
Asked to elaborate, Dishnov said that the former prime minister had a “bravery” he hadn’t yet seen from Gantz.
“Rabin was fierce in everything he did. And he was just as fierce in his passion for peace. I haven’t heard that from Benny. Maybe he believes in peace and concessions and making the hard decisions like Rabin did, but he isn’t saying it. Not for now at least.”
Notably, unlike Rabin in his 1995 speech, Gantz, who has been careful to position himself as a political centrist rather than a leftist, made little mention of the peace process or the Palestinians, focusing his remarks on the need for internal healing.
“He said the right thing for tonight, but I do hope he speaks about peace more in the future, maybe after the negotiations,” said 26-year-old Li-am, a student at Tel Aviv University.
Gantz was tasked late last month with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to do so following elections in September. Talks on assembling a unity government have so far failed to yield progress, as the two largest parties remain divided on a number of issues.
“He did remind me of Rabin,” Li-am said when asked if she saw similarities. “Maybe he could be like Rabin one day,” she mused. “I don’t mean in the way he speaks. I mean in making history by making peace. Who knows?”
For fellow Tel Aviv resident May Yaron, who was at the rally with her two children, the comparison was meaningless.
“He doesn’t need to be Rabin,” said Yaron. “He has the credentials to be a prime minister. He gave a good speech that was a good tribute to Rabin. That’s it. No?”