For months, Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party was leading the opinion polls, consistently commanding a small but significant advantage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
The tables started to turn at roughly the time Gantz started giving interviews.
To be sure, Blue and White’s disappointing second-place finish in Monday’s elections was the result of many factors — primarily his rival’s unrivaled campaigning skills, and the fatefully timed leak of a tape in which Gantz’s top adviser can be heard denigrating his boss.
But Gantz’s performances in the various interviews he gave in the run-up to the March 2 elections likely also played a significant role in his defeat. Many Netanyahu critics considering voting for Gantz probably ended up not doing so because he simply was not convincing enough. Some might have wished for fewer personal attacks on Netanyahu; others likely wanted to hear more about what exactly he would do differently as prime minister.
But while some potential voters were put off by what Gantz had to say, many others were put off by how he said it.
It’s by no means a scientific survey, but a few people who dislike the prime minster and wanted to vote for his opponent told this reporter that they ultimately refrained from doing so because, as they put it, “Gantz sounds like a total idiot” or because “he can’t put together a single coherent sentence.”
These are harsh words, but it’s undeniably true that Gantz often stutters or simply sounds confused. Indeed, he appears to trip over his own tongue several times in most every interview he gives.
He mixes up Hebrew idioms and, in the heat of the moment his facial gestures make him look impulsive and irritated rather than cool and controlled. He called interviewer Dana Weiss “Dafna” — apparently confusing her for reporter Daphna Liel — and said the elections would take place on April 3, instead of March 2. The list of his verbal mishaps is long and has sparked much ridicule from satirists and, of course, his political opponents.
Gantz has defended himself, quite elegantly, by saying that Moses stuttered and yet managed to deliver the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. While Netanyahu was taking acting classes in New York, he was busy defending Israel from its many enemies, the former IDF chief of staff said in one interview, subtly playing up his own security credentials while taking a dig at Netanyahu.
My thoughts are sometimes faster than my lips, Gantz explained in another interview. And even if I stuttered, what’s wrong with that? he went on the counter-attack. Are people with physical disabilities excluded from assuming leadership roles?
These are valid points, but apparently they failed to convince some people who had weighed supporting Blue and White. The way to the Israeli voter’s heart goes through the tongue, at last for some, and after more than a decade of Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office, many have become used to his rhetorical gold standard.
Not all Israeli prime ministers were outstanding public speakers like Netanyahu. But over time it has become increasingly important for Israeli voters that their leader be someone who can represent them well on the world stage.
Netanyahu is widely praised for his articulate speeches. And he’s not shy about it. In fact, much of the prime minister’s campaign focused on his verbal prowess, and his rival’s lack thereof.
Likud’s ads did not highlight what the government did to stop Hamas from firing rockets at Israelis cities, to improve the ailing health system, to alleviate growing congestion on Israel’s streets, or to stem police brutality against Ethiopians.
Rather, they mostly focused on a) Gantz’s unsuitability for the position of prime minister, and his being ostensibly unable to build a coalition without support from the predominantly Arab Joint List, and b) how Netanyahu managed to convince the US administration to take various actions.
I persuaded President Donald Trump — with the power of my words — to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, to allow Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank, Netanyahu repeated over and over in interviews.
Netanyahu, too, has misspoken on occasion. He said he visited Afghanistan when he meant Azerbaijan, and called the British prime minister Boris Yeltsin. But these minor lapses pale in relation to his overall stellar oratory and coherence.
Whether it’s fair or not, as long as Netanyahu is around, his challengers will be measured, to a significant extent, by the manner in which they can express themselves in public. To win against such a gifted speaker as Netanyahu, Gantz will have to learn to talk the talk.
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