Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz got support from a surprising source on Wednesday: longtime critic and right-wing firebrand Avigdor Liberman.
“I hear a lot of criticism from Likud at Benny Gantz over Protective Edge,” the former defense minister said in an interview with Army Radio Wednesday, referring to the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. “I don’t understand these people. I have here quotes, all the compliments the prime minister lavished, the songs of praise he sang to Benny Gantz as chief of staff during Protective Edge,” Liberman said.
Liberman’s comments Wednesday morning followed a torrent of attacks from right-wing politicians against the neophyte Gantz on Tuesday evening as he launched his political campaign and bid to lead the country. Lawmakers from the right charged that Gantz’s remarks in his maiden campaign speech in Tel Aviv Tuesday night showed he was a “leftist.”
Netanyahu himself responded to the speech with a terse Twitter post in which he scorned Gantz for trying to present himself as centrist. “Another Lapid speech,” Netanyahu wrote, referring to Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “Anyone who says he isn’t left or right — is left,” the prime minister declared.
The New Right party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who are longtime critics of Netanyahu and then-IDF chief Gantz’s policy of containment of Hamas in Gaza during the 2014 war, issued a biting critique.
In a statement, New Right called Gantz and his new political partner, former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, “the architects of the stalemate” with Hamas. “The last time [Ya’alon] and Gantz worked together it ended with 30 terror tunnels [from Gaza] in the south,” the New Right said.
“Both are good people, but they led the weak stalemate doctrine,” the statement said, adding “it’s a doctrine of ignoring threats instead of taking care of them with determination. The question in this election is, what’s better, Gantz and Ya’alon’s stalemate doctrine, or [New Right chair Naftali] Bennett’s doctrine of decisive victory.”
Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) accused Gantz of hiding his true opinions.
“We heard a lot of slogans but we didn’t hear positions,” Akunis said Tuesday. “To obfuscate and hide your views is not leadership and not statesmanship. It is completely clear that when you have leftist views you need to hide them from the public, in order to win votes.”
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev echoed Akunis. “Gantz is the new left, which apparently doesn’t distinguish between a monarchy and democracy,” she said, referring to Gantz’s accusation that the Netanyahu government had begun to exhibit the “mannerisms of the French royal court.”
Liberman slammed this campaign on Wednesday.
“Anyone can go to Google and find all the quotes. There’s endless praise from Benjamin Netanyahu for Benny Gantz over his handling of Protective Edge, which from my perspective was a complete failure. There’s a kind of fog here, they think people suffer from amnesia. But memory today isn’t like in the past. You go to Google and get all the quotes, all Netanyahu’s praise for Benny Gantz and how much he lauded himself for his success in Operation Protective Edge,” Liberman charged.
Gantz is seen as the strongest challenger to Netanyahu in years, with surveys showing many Israelis seeing him as a suitable prime minister, and polls positioning him as a possible leader of a centrist or center-left bloc.
That position has made him the main target of right-wing election rhetoric.
On Wednesday morning, former Likud minister Gideon Saar noted Gantz’s promise in his speech to “forge a new reality” if it turns out “there is no way to achieve peace at this time.”
“What reality is he going to forge?” Saar wondered in an Army Radio interview. “He means a unilateral move” like the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, Saar asserted without elaborating. “We must not return to that dangerous path,” Saar insisted.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of the Netanyahu’s Likud party, responded to Gantz’s speech with a tweet, “There is nothing new under the sun. You would expect from someone who claims to be running for leadership of the country to present a path, values, and to not be satisfied with flattering posters and eloquent slogans,” he wrote.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, slammed Gantz’s vow to enable public transport on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, in towns that wish it, and his support for civil marriage and the 2015 Western Wall compromise, which would ensure all streams of Judaism have formal prayer rights at Judaism’s holiest prayer site.
“After months of silence [by Gantz], the gospel for the people of Israel is civil marriages and a Reform section at the Western Wall?” Deri tweeted, adding, “Public transport on Shabbat? No, Benny. That is not how you unite the people, but how you divide it. Do not tear apart the delicate fabric that connects us as a people. Do not touch the Jewish tradition.”
That criticism was dialed back on Wednesday in comments by an unnamed Haredi political figure to the Haaretz daily. “We don’t think this is the right time to attack Gantz. He will be judged on his deeds, not on a few sentences from a campaign launch. As time goes by, we will get a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
Another source was quoted by the daily as saying, “We don’t rule out sitting with Gantz [in government]. He isn’t [secularist Yair] Lapid. But we prefer Netanyahu, because we already know who he is and what you get. We prefer the good and known over the new and unknown.”
Bennett called the former IDF chief a danger to the country’s security. “He talks well, but is weak on actions,” Bennett said. “Gantz is a clear leftist in his views. It would be dangerous to give him the defense portfolio or responsibility for the security of Israel.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, also of Likud, said “Benny Gantz’s media advisers did not pass up on a single empty slogan or worn-out cliche. Benny Gantz is the new Yair Lapid, left in camouflage,” she said, adding, “the right-wing public is not buying the costume.”
Polls have shown Israel Resilience garnering 13-15 seats in the April 9 elections, making it the second or third largest party, while Ya’alon was seen as failing to gain enough votes to enter the 120-member Knesset. But one initial poll after Gantz’s campaign launch on Tuesday saw a surge to 19 seats for Gantz — still well behind Likud’s 29 but ahead of third-place Yesh Atid’s diminished 12.