It is beyond implausible that Avi Gabbay, the leader of the opposition Zionist Union, is going to win April’s elections. Tzipi Livni, the formal head of the opposition in the just-dissolved Knesset, certainly isn’t going to win either. Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, has only a slightly better chance. Naftali Bennett, leader of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, knows his ambitions will have to wait a while longer. Moshe Ya’alon, the former chief of staff who is setting up his own party, could struggle even to clear the Knesset threshold if he runs alone, let alone become prime minister.
In short, we could save the Israeli economy the NIS 1.8 billion ($480 million) that somebody in the Treasury has computed the elections will cost us, spare ourselves 100 days of bickering and demagoguery, and just declare Benjamin Netanyahu the winner again right here and now. Were it not, that is, for another Benjamin.
Labor, under whatever name it competes, is unelectable so long as mainstream Israel sees no prospect of the Palestinians accepting viable terms for coexistence. Yesh Atid looks incapable of drawing enough support from center-right and center-left to challenge Netanyahu’s Likud. And nobody on the right comes close to rivaling Netanyahu’s popularity and political mastery.
Only Benny Gantz, our last but one chief of the IDF General Staff, poses a threat to Netanyahu’s extraordinary hold, scoring fairly high in Israel’s somewhat unreliable snap opinion polls. And that may be simply because most Israelis don’t know exactly what he stands for.
We love our chiefs of staff so long as they are in uniform. Of course we do. It is to the chiefs of staff that we ultimately give thanks for keeping most our children safe during their years of mandatory military service.
But that universal appreciation and aura of authority can dissipate quickly when the military chiefs enter politics. With every speech a chief of staff-turned-politician delivers, every clear position he takes, he inevitably disappoints, annoys and alienates another swath of the voting public.
Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak showed that it is possible to transition from head of the army to head of the government, but the rise and fall of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak underlines how easily a military star can fall. Retiring from the army in 1998, the hitherto beloved Lipkin-Shahak quickly entered politics, set up his own party, and flew to the top of the opinion polls. By the time elections came around the following year, however, he had been so battered on the campaign trail that, far from winning the leadership of the State of Israel, he had somehow contrived to lose the leadership of his own party.
Tall, composed and soft-spoken, Gantz bears more of a superficial resemblance to Lipkin-Shahak than to the blunt and charismatic Rabin or the spectacularly self-confident Barak. But only now, over the next three-and-a-bit months, are we really going to get to know him and learn what he stands for.
A refusal to be hysterical
Benny Gantz became chief of staff in 2011 almost by accident; he had already retired from the IDF at the end of a glittering, three-decade military career, when he was called back because the original appointee, Yoav Gallant, became embroiled in a minor scandal concerning unauthorized construction work at his home. Appointed by PM Netanyahu and DM Barak, Gantz is generally regarded as having been moderately successful in the position, having presided over the inconclusive 2012 and 2014 mini-wars against Hamas in Gaza.
In an interview in 2016, a few months after his retirement, Gantz said of the Iranian nuclear threat, “I refuse to be hysterical on this issue,” and that remark rather sets the tone for Benny Gantz as far as we know him to date: Not so much mild as temperate. Not arrogant, but assured. “I know Israel’s strength. I know Israel’s defensive capabilities. I know Israel’s offensive capabilities,” he continued in that interview, “and I am absolutely confident in our security.”
“We are an army that uses force not violence,” he said quite elegantly in another interview, with Haaretz in 2012, early in his term as chief of staff.
He has sounded sober on the Palestinian issue, criticizing the Palestinian Authority’s incitement against Israel, and highlighting that PA self-interest lies at the heart of Ramallah’s security coordination with Israel.
And sober, too, on Israel’s place in the region: The 1973 Yom Kippur War had taught Israel, he once said, “that we must always be war-ready,” and that while “we should never stop hoping and acting for a better future, we have to be very realistic about what we are facing. We need to stay strong and united and never flirt with history.”
He has also spoken, with some grace, about Israel’s responsibilities to the Jewish nation worldwide, and about its domestic imperatives. “Naomi Shemer said in her beautiful song, Ha’ir Be’afor [The City in Gray], ‘I’ll return you on eagles’ wings, or astride clouds,'” he observed in 2016. “Now, across the history of the Jewish people, people came to Israel by choice – meaning eagles’ wings. They decided to come. Or sometimes they came on clouds – like my parents. The clouds of the Second World War brought them here. In both cases, Israel was here for them – although at the time it wasn’t really Israel, yet. But luckily, today we have a secure place for the Jewish people.
We have a lot to contribute to the world. But the essence is that we are here, first and foremost, for our people
“I don’t think we should look at it only through the security perspective, though,” he went on in that interview. “It has to be a just and moral society. It has to be a very fair society. On the one hand a high-tech powerhouse and at the same time a guardian for its people, not just in security terms, but in terms of welfare and social equality. I think we should be part of the world as much as we can; we have a lot to contribute to the world. But the essence is that we are here, first and foremost, for our people. We are here for those who choose to come and for those who choose to stay in the Diaspora. I hope no one will be in a difficult situation and have to make a decision that he doesn’t want to make. But we are here for those people as well.
“So if you ask me,” he concluded, “the prime minister of Israel has the biggest challenge in the Jewish world, and the chief of staff of the IDF shares some of that responsibility.”
Whose side is he on?
Though he is yet to even formally declare that he’ll be competing in these elections, Gantz has been pigeonholed by some as a man of the center-left. The hapless Gabbay was forced three times in a TV interview on Wednesday evening to deny a claim that he had offered the Zionist Union top slot to Gantz and been rebuffed.
More plausible are reports that Gantz is considering running for the Knesset together with Ya’alon. Such a course would also be more politically astute. The center-left will latch onto any candidate credibly asserting that he can keep the country safe, oversee effective diplomacy, push for greater equality, and respect the rule of law. It is from the center-right that he would need to draw support if he is to truly constitute a threat to Netanyahu, and the hawkish Ya’alon becomes an asset in that effort where attachment to the Labor Party is a liability.
Praising Gantz’s appointment as chief of staff, Netanyahu called him an excellent officer with “all the attributes needed” to lead the army. If Gantz proves capable of sustaining a challenge, it is a safe bet that Netanyahu, who has been so effective over the years in discrediting and undermining those who would replace him, will seek to assert that Gantz has none of the attributes needed to lead the country. He may play up their differences on Iran, whose regime leaders Gantz, while keenly aware of the nuclear threat, has described as “very rational.”
When respondents are asked whom they want as prime minister, the polls consistently show Netanyahu far in front of all rivals, undented by multiplying reports that he faces indictment in up to three corruption probes, though not backed by a majority. In 2015, the Zionist Union, then under Isaac Herzog, a man of limited political appeal, performed well enough to rattle Netanyahu, but not to seriously trouble him.
If Gantz is able to retain at least some of the aura of an IDF chief, if he forges astute political alliances, if he can assert himself as a less divisive alternative to the left-bashing, media-bashing, law-enforcement-bashing, and legally pressured Netanyahu, then the 2019 election campaign just might get interesting. If Gantz turns out to be inspirational, it might get very interesting.
But those are a lot of ifs.