Reporter's notebook

Neither right nor left, Gantz offers ‘hope’ to a crowd calling for ‘change’

The enigmatic ex-IDF chief’s first public address covered all the bases. But while he sometimes sat on the fence, Benny Gantz ultimately gave the audience what they had come for

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (C) is greeted by supporters as he arrives to give his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (C) is greeted by supporters as he arrives to give his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

As activists, party officials and journalists arrived at the car park of the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds Tuesday night on their way to Benny Gantz’s maiden political speech, the election jingle of his Israel Resilience party could be heard pumping out from the hall where the highly anticipated event was about to begin.

The repeated chiming of its chorus, “There is no more right or left, just Israel — before all else,” continued to ring in the ears of attendees, only interrupted for any lengthy period by Gantz’s address itself, until they got back in their cars some two hours later and closed their doors.

For those who preferred a more upbeat tempo than the soulful original, a live DJ was performing remixes of the tune during the pre-speech mini-reception. For the deaf and hard of hearing, a sign language interpreter translated every single rendition.

The crowd was indeed somewhat of a mixed bunch — shaggy-haired and scruffy-bearded 20-somethings rubbing shoulders with septuagenarians in suits alongside trim ex-general types and businesswomen — all gently moving to the beat of the ambiguously worded ditty.

There was a palpable excitement in the hall before Gantz arrived, but many of the participants found it hard to articulate exactly what they were excited about.

“He’s offering something new,” said a party activist named Iddo wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the same slogan from the song. Asked what, Iddo was stumped. “Well, lots of things. A new vision, a new direction… I think,” he said.

Sharon Avrami, who had come to the event from nearby Hod Hasharon, said the ex-chief of staff “will be able to lead the country properly because he has the experience and the know how.”

Lead it where?

“To a better place,” she said.

An Israel Resilience supporter carrying a portrait of party leader Benny Gantz ahead of his first electoral speech in Tel Aviv, on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Despite Gantz being considered one of the only possible threats to a fourth straight victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April’s election, little was known– before Tuesday’s speech at least — about his political convictions. The snippets of campaign materials that Israel Resilience had put out and the brief public comments he had made had appeared to be an attempt to place him firmly in the Israeli center, but policy proposals were thin, at best.

Some in the crowd were sure that Gantz would represent what they believed, even if they didn’t know exactly what his own convictions were.

“We need a leader that will push for peace,” said 77-year-old Yaakov Ayelet, a former Labor member. “We haven’t heard the word ‘peace’ in years. We need it now. Gantz can bring it.”

Simcha Hendler, who said he had previously voted for Likud, including under Netanyahu, said that Gantz, “unlike Bibi, will not put up with extremists in his party who attack everything sacred about this country.”

The opening speakers of the evening presented similar broad hopes for the new party and its leader.

Hila Shai Vazan, a political operative who previously served on the Modiin city council, promised that “things can be different here,” and that “the people of Israel are ready for a different leadership.” Former Yerucham mayor Michael Biton said, “Benny is committed to education, welfare, the health system, the periphery… to all of Israeli society.”

The anticipation was eventually met when the “no more left or right” music was turned to full volume and Gantz, done away with his khaki fatigues and now donning a well-cut suit, entered from the back of the hall to make his way to the circular stage in the center.

Wading through the crowd, the formerly taciturn general became an image of the people’s man, eagerly shaking hands and hugging his new-found supporters, even scaling the low-level bleachers like a real rock star to give a high-five to one.

Benny Gantz arrives at a campaign event for his Israel Resilience party in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

When he eventually took to the podium, a few party activists in the room sheepishly started the well-known Israeli political chant (which sounds significantly better in its original rhyming Hebrew), “Ooh ahh, who’s coming? The next prime minister.” The rest of the crowd didn’t instantly join in — after all Gantz hadn’t yet made clear that he even wanted the job — but it slowly rippled throughout the hall, eventually being replaced, even more diffidently, with chants of, “mahapah,” the historical slogan that was used to signify the first Likud victory after three decades of Labor rule in 1977, and which translates as “upheaval,” or simply “change.”

Breaking his near-silence of many months, Gantz, speaking word-for-word from a teleprompter projecting the carefully crafted speech, covered all the bases of Israeli public discourse — security woes and fears, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the role of the IDF, the welfare system, the Arab and Druze minorities within Israel, the Palestinians (ever so briefly), the right-left divide, the relationship between religion and state, public corruption and even, yes, peace.

In what became a theme throughout, however, Gantz appeared to often offer two options regarding how he felt on various topics, perhaps leaving it up to the audience to decide which they preferred.

“We are one nation. We share one flag, one anthem and one army,” he beamed, before adding, “However, I have come here tonight because I’m also worried about Israel.”

“The people are strong. The country is wonderful,” Gantz said. “But in the land an ill wind blows.”

“Believe me, I am very proud of our country and will never be ashamed of it,” he vowed. “But lately more and more people, both right and left, myself included, are deeply embarrassed by the way our leadership conducts itself.”

The pick-and-choose was also on offer for serious policy proposals.

“Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change,” Gantz promised. “However, if it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality.”

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

But the ambiguity was done away with when Gantz turned to political corruption in the clearest attack of the night on Netanyahu, and the clearest indication that he does not intend to hold back when it comes to the graft cases in which the prime minister is accused of bribery.

“The national government we will establish will show zero tolerance for corruption of any kind. The state’s money belongs to all its citizens and not to a small and privileged minority,” Gantz said, building momentum along with the growing cheers of the crowd. “This is not the personal example that we should provide to the young generation that is watching us. A moral government is an example to us – and to our children.”

Presenting himself in contrast to Netanyahu, Gantz continued, “All my life, I have spoken the truth. I have always kept my hands clean. I owe nothing to anyone but my people. And I will neither support, nor will I close my eyes in the face of any violation of moral standards.”

Then, ruling out joining a Netanyahu-led government if the premier is hit with criminal charges, he added, “The very thought that a prime minister can serve in Israel with an indictment is ridiculous to me. This cannot happen,”

Truly riled up now, the crowd went back to its chant of “mahapah,” this time with a genuine passion and unity. And as the ex-general listed the principles his government would be based upon — “the unique Israeli combination of tradition and modernity, Judaism and democracy” — the audience, as if freed from hesitation, kept returning to the one-word mantra.

Concluding his address, Gantz articulated what some in the crowd had expressed before the speech. “Most of all,” he said, “I believe – like you – in hope.”

“Together, I will make Israel a strong and united country of hope,” he said, as party activists silently filed onto the stage behind him before the national anthem was played. Finally, just before the streamers were released and maybe only briefly, the incessant “no more right or left” soundtrack was replaced with something else — the Hatikva, known in English as “The hope.”

And then the jingle started again.

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