Is Gantz a leftist? We still don’t know. His empathy for the Druze is mainstream

Likud has slammed ex-IDF chief and would-be PM for vowing to ‘fix’ Nation-State Law, but even Bennett acknowledged its problems, and Netanyahu set up a committee to deal with them

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz seen with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha'ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz seen with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha'ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)

When a politician doesn’t know if he’s left-wing or right-wing, he’s usually a leftist, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently in reference to former army chief and current election season ostensible superstar Benny Gantz.

The public still doesn’t know much about Gantz’s political positions, but on Monday he offered a first glimpse, not so much of where he stands on the various issues, but at least of the way he wants to be perceived by the public: as someone who’s at home in the heart of the Israeli consensus.

Sympathizing with Druze protesters who came to his home in Rosh Ha’ayin to demonstrate against the Jewish Nation-State Law, Gantz vowed that he would try to “fix” the controversial legislation.

His promised intervention on behalf of a community whose members serve in the IDF, and who argue that the law renders them second-class citizens because it does not specify full equality for all Israeli citizens, triggered a deluge of critical comments from Netanyahu’s Likud party and New Right ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

The critics argued that the legislation needs no fixing. (Defenders of the law note that the commitment to full equality for all Israelis is enshrined in other legislation.) Gantz’s pledge to change it, they asserted, underlined what they had long suspected: that the former chief of staff is a leftist.

The Likud party did not mince words. “When Gantz attacks the nation-state law and Tzipi Livni congratulates him for it, everyone knows the obvious: Gantz is left, just like [Yesh Atid head Yair] Lapid,” Netanyahu’s party said in a statement.

One Likud MK, Amir Ohana, went as far as suggesting (Hebrew tweet) that Gantz had joined the camp of veteran Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi.

But the Israeli left was also unhappy about Gantz’s first foray into political punditry. “The nation-state law does not have to be fixed” but should be scrapped entirely, carped Meretz head Tamar Zandberg. To merely propose changes to the law’s wording constituted a “true victory of the right,” she argued.

Applause came from the center-left, with both Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay and Hatnua chief Livni warmly greeting the former army chief’s comments. Centrist Yesh Atid boss Lapid, too, welcomed Gantz’s statement, adding that his party has long promised to amend the law in response to the criticism by the Druze and others.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)

Gantz’s attack on the Nation-State Law — which, when passed in July, was celebrated by the Israeli right as a historic achievement for modern Zionism — turned him into an easy target for his political opponents.

“All surveys” indicate that a large majority of the Israeli public, “including centrists,” support the legislation, and Gantz’s first political statement might therefore turn out to have been his “first political mistake,” Hadashot TV news’s political commentator Amit Segal tweeted.

But the opprobrium from the right notwithstanding, Gantz did not dispute the non-contentious elements of the Nation-State Law, which, among other provisions, determines that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people” and specifies what Israel’s flag looks like. He emphatically did not call for the law to be repealed.

Rather, in showing solidarity with the Druze minority’s complaints about the legislation, he implied that he took issue with the law’s more controversial clauses, such as the apparent downgrading of the Arabic language and the clause stipulating that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” and possibly with its failure to include phrasing about equality for all citizens.

In this stance, Gantz joins many Israelis, including some with bona fide right-wing credentials.

Likud MK Benny Begin, for instance, refused to vote for the bill, and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said that the law constituted an “injustice” to Israel’s non-Jewish population.

“This is not about right or left. This is not an issue of which party you vote for. It’s a matter of values,” Pardo declared at a Tel Aviv demonstration against the legislation in early August, which was attended by several other senior security figures.

Indeed, President Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud lawmaker, said in September that the law is “bad for the State of Israel and bad for the Jews.”

Many Diaspora communities, including the umbrella Jewish Federations of North America, have also vocally opposed the legislation.

Israelis from the Druze community participate in a rally against Israel’s nation-state law, in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Despite the right-wing’s efforts to portray Gantz as a bleeding-heart lefty for throwing his newly politicized weight behind the Druze, support for this community, and indeed for all Israeli non-Jews who are loyal, law-abiding, tax-paying and army-serving citizens of the state, extends almost all the way across the political spectrum.

In a response late Monday to the New Right party’s attack on his comments, Gantz’s Resilience for Israel party highlighted this fact. It pointed to a tweet by Naftali Bennett from July 2018, in which the education minister said he had had many discussions with “our Druze brothers” that led him to realize that the law in its current form is “very damaging especially to anyone who has tied their fate to the Jewish state.”

Naftali Bennett on November 15, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“This, of course, was not the intention of the Israeli government,” Bennett wrote, adding that it was now the government’s responsibility to find a way to “heal the wound.”

Indeed, even Netanyahu has acknowledged that the law created a problem that needs fixing. He has firmly rejected calls for the law itself to be changed, but when tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the legislation after it passed in July, he, too, determined that something had to be done.

Protesters wave Israeli and Druze flags at a demonstration in Tel Aviv against the nation-state law, on August 4, 2018. (Luke Tress / Times of Israel staff)

He established a “special ministerial committee” to advance the “deep bond” between Israeli Jews and Druze, and asked his aides to meet with non-Jewish local council heads and with relevant ministries, and to “submit to the committee feasible steps to remove the impediments especially regarding housing and employment.”

The so-called Ministerial Committee on Druze, Circassian and Minority Community Members who serve in the Security Forces Affairs, met twice in August. It has not met since.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Druze regional council heads at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 29, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“As we promised the heads of the Druze community, we will continue to work toward implementing the outline that we agreed upon and will conclude it as soon as possible,” Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud), one of the few Druze who supports the Nation-State Law, said Monday, in response to Gantz’s comments.

Savvy ploy or happenstance?

It’s not clear whether Gantz planned carefully for his first public remarks as a politician to be focused on so sensitive an issue. Was it a savvy ploy to provoke the right wing into firing all its ammunition against him on a law even many potential Likud voters feel uncomfortable with? Maybe he chose this issue because it allows him to distinguish himself from Netanyahu without having to contradict the prime minister on other right-wing policies, for example regarding Iran or the Palestinians?

The little peek into his political positions Gantz granted the public on Monday may turn out to say very little about whether he’s a leftist, a rightist or something in between

Or was it happenstance that the activists from the “Staff for the Correction of the Nationality Law” chose Gantz as the first politician to approach this week? (Later this week, the group also plans to hold similar protests outside the homes of Justice Minister Shaked, Lapid, Netanyahu and other leading politicians.)

It’s early days in assessing Gantz, but the little peek into his political positions he granted the public on Monday may turn out to say very little about whether he’s a leftist, a rightist or something in between.

If anything, rather than proving him a leftist (as the right claimed), or a rightist (as the left claimed), it suggested a centrist orientation. Because all he did on Monday was express solidarity with loyal and productive Israeli citizens who happen not to be Jewish, and vowed to “fix” a law aspects of which many Israelis, even on the right, consider flawed.

For now, notwithstanding rivals’ efforts to categorize him elsewhere, he seems to be seeking to remain firmly inside the mainstream consensus.

Those looking for a clear understanding of what kind of alternative to Netanyahu the political neophyte Gantz wants to offer, therefore, will have to wait a little longer.

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