On the battlefield, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi commanded Israel’s entire military hierarchy as IDF chiefs of staff, while Benjamin Netanyahu served courageously down the ranks as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit. But in the political war ahead of April 9’s elections, it’s sometimes looked in the past few days like a case of boys against men, or rather man.
Benny Gantz made a dramatic entrée into Israeli politics, presenting himself in a rather stiff but heartfelt opening address as a protector and a healer — the ex-military chief who could be relied upon to keep the country safe; the untarnished political newcomer who would strive to bring the country together after years of divisive rule by Netanyahu.
His star rose a little higher when he merged his new Israel Resilience party with both Yair Lapid’s centrist and pretty successful Yesh Atid and Ya’alon’s hawkish, faltering Telem — bringing together three men of ambition with somewhat different political agendas under a single Blue and White umbrella, further bolstered by Ashkenazi.
If these people were prepared to curb their egos in the joint cause of ousting Netanyahu, Blue and White’s healthy polling figures suggested that a significant proportion of the electorate was thinking of backing them.
But the momentum of Gantz and Blue and White has stalled over the past week and a half, as Gantz flapped uneasily between his initial statesmanlike tone and harsher, personal assaults on Netanyahu; as he contradicted himself about whether he’d sit in a coalition with a Netanyahu-led Likud, and especially over his handling of the “Iranian hacking” of his phone.
At the same time, Netanyahu and Likud have held their own in the polls — despite the fact that on February 28 Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he intends to prosecute the prime minister for bribery in the Case 4000 Bezeq-Walla affair, and for fraud and breach of trust in all three of the criminal cases in which Netanyahu is embroiled.
The likelihood of Netanyahu having to spend a good deal of his prime ministerial time if re-elected fighting the corruption allegations, and potentially going on trial, did not, according to the polls, significantly impact support for Likud. Neither did his spat with a popular TV host over the status of Arabs in this country, or his focus in several speeches and appearances on designating Arab politicians as enemies of the state. Neither did the uproar that followed his brokering of an agreement to let the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party into the Knesset. Neither did the restrained response he ordered to last Thursday’s rocket fire from Gaza at Tel Aviv. And, finally, neither did the surge in West Bank Palestinian terrorism that saw an Israeli father of 12 and a soldier murdered in an attack near Ariel on Sunday.
The phone hack vs. the submarines
I put “Iranian hacking” in quotes above because a week after that story broke, it is still hard to understand exactly what is being claimed and counter-claimed in the saga. Gantz’s somewhat evasive answers have done his prime ministerial campaign no favors. Underlining the difference in their relative skill sets, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu would have handled similar political challenges more adroitly. Indeed, that’s exactly what Netanyahu has been doing.
Gantz’s most telling misstep on the phone hack story came Tuesday night, when he declared in TV interviews that he wouldn’t be curtailing his nascent political career over the incident. On Channel 13, he said he wouldn’t quit when he was specifically asked. On Channel 12, he volunteered, unprompted, that if anyone was expecting him to quit, they were going to be disappointed, and that his wife stands utterly by him. Why on earth, the watching electorate would be forgiven for wondering, would Gantz be so much as thinking of quitting when he was so earnestly assuring us that there was no story here, no sensitive information accessed by Israel’s enemies, no opportunity for Tehran to extort him?
Needless to say, Netanyahu on Wednesday seized the opportunity to ask Gantz what exactly he’s been holding back — what the Iranians have on him, from that hacked phone, that he won’t disclose to the voters of Israel.
Contrast all that, first, to Netanyahu’s response to the publication of a 57-page draft charge sheet, compiled after protracted police investigation, in which the country’s widely respected attorney general asserts that the prime minister took bribes, illicitly skewed the operations of a government ministry, forced civil servants who worked to conform to his illicit instructions, and acted illegally out of personal interest.
It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu seriously considered resigning when the allegations against him were made public three weeks ago, but if he did, unlike Gantz on Tuesday night, he certainly wasn’t saying so. Speaking hours after Mandelblit released his allegations, Netanyahu went onto the offensive. Hitherto, he had charged that the opposition, the media, the police and some in the state prosecution were engaging in a witch hunt to oust him; now he widened his aim to include the attorney general, depicting him as a weak man who had been worn down by all those leftist enemies and had come to share their agenda. Resign? Nothing could have been further from his mind. Instead, he issued a ringing call to action — urging the patriotic voters of Israel to ensure, on election day, that they do not facilitate this nefarious bid to eject the best government Israel could possibly wish for.
It’s not only the massive shadow of possible charges that has hung over Netanyahu’s head these past few days. Blink and you might have missed it, but there were reports this week that his wife Sara and son Yair’s phones were hacked by Iran, too — reports, it should be stressed, that came from a Saudi-funded Arabic website, rather than, as in Gantz’s case, Israel’s most watched nightly news broadcast. The Prime Minister’s Office swiftly dismissed the claims as false, and, in the absence of any further information, the story was done.
More challengingly, Netanyahu is gradually being reeled into Case 3000, a corruption investigation surrounding Israel’s purchase of submarines and naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. To date, Netanyahu has been interviewed as a witness but emphatically not as a suspect in the affair, which has seen police recommend bribery charges against several of the prime minister’s closest aides and associates. In recent days, it has been alleged that Netanyahu acquired and then sold shares in a company (Seadrift Coke), that in turn was bought by a conglomerate (GrafTech International) that supplies Thyssenkrupp. Blue and White’s Ya’alon, who was Netanyahu’s Likud defense minister as the submarine purchase moved ahead, suggested Wednesday that Netanyahu’s activities in the affair could amount to “treason” — a sensational allegation even from a former ally who has become so relentless a critic of Netanyahu’s.
Ya’alon and others are indicating that the prime minister forced through vital defense contracts in breach of normal procedures, in some cases for purchases that Israel did not need, for his own financial benefit and that of a cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, a far larger investor. Also, unthinkably, that, for the same narrow financial reasons, Netanyahu gave Germany the okay to sell to Egypt submarines that pose a potential danger to Israel; hence the “treason” allegation. Hebrew media reports in recent days, taken up by Blue and White, allege that Netanyahu pocketed NIS 16 million ($4.5 million) when he sold his shares in Seadrift to Milikowsky — the same cousin who has been offering to help fund Netanyahu’s legal defense in Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.
Netanyahu insists that he is innocent of all the allegations in all of the cases swirling around him. As Case 3000 has returned to the headlines, and is now being described by Gantz as the “greatest security-related corruption case in the history of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu has declared that he “didn’t get a shekel” from the submarine deal and also that all his dealings were carefully checked by the proper authorities and found to be entirely aboveboard. With new revelations reported almost daily, it is far from clear that everything now being alleged has been checked; indeed, latest reports suggest the state prosecution is considering opening a new probe into Netanyahu’s role in the affair.
Whatever the new potential complications for Netanyahu legally, however, politically he strides bullishly forward. Hours after Ya’alon hurled the “treason” allegation, Netanyahu moved to focus Wednesday’s news agenda back on Gantz, convening what still gets called a “press conference” but is actually just a prime ministerial statement, to issue the demand that his rival come clean about what was on that phone.
This weekend, Netanyahu and Gantz will be making their way to the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel US lobby AIPAC, where organizers, careful with their bipartisan bona fides, are ensuring that both the prime minister and his would-be successor will address the entire conference, with its 16,000-18,000 participants.
Netanyahu is infinitely more comfortable than neophyte politician Gantz in the AIPAC and White House milieu where he has spent so much time, and where Gantz’s English will be mercilessly compared to the prime minister’s fluency. But Netanyahu will have the further boost of not one but two White House get-togethers with his friend and ally President Donald Trump — the first, a working meeting Monday, reportedly scheduled for about an hour after Gantz’s AIPAC speech (no prizes for guessing where most of the camera crews will be), and the second a dinner on Tuesday night.
Trump is also quite capable of favoring Israel, and bolstering Netanyahu’s reelection chances, with a diplomatic goodie or two. Netanyahu on Thursday afternoon accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Western Wall, in a visit that implied unprecedented American tacit recognition of Israel’s rights there. The prime minister has been pushing hard for US recognition of Israel rule over the Golan, and reports in the last few hours suggest that this may be within reach.
The great advantage that Gantz had over Netanyahu at the start of this election campaign was precisely that he was the newcomer — a political Mr. Clean, with no personal baggage, but with his general’s security credentials. Taking on a leader with Netanyahu’s experience and political cunning was always going to be a tall order, as my colleague Raphael Ahren punned recently. But his task has been unexpectedly complicated by the phone hack saga — not so much by the original story as by his failure to shut it down, because his curious responses have left open the question of whether he has something personal to hide. The prime minister is bracing for an indictment for bribery and facing hard new questions over the submarine deal, yet now Gantz is on the defensive on an issue of personal propriety.
In his opening speech as a politician, way back in the distant mists of time — on January 29 — Gantz made an issue of Netanyahu’s personal conduct and contrasted it with his own. “All my life, I have spoken the truth,” Gantz declared that evening. “I have always kept my hands clean. I owe nothing to anyone but my people. I will neither support nor will I close my eyes in the face of any violation of moral standards.”
And maybe all of that is true. Seven weeks after he marched into Israeli politics, however, he is struggling to prove that he can live up to the rhetoric. And his formidable incumbent rival can be relied upon to maximize any further potential embarrassment.
During his television interviews on Tuesday night, Gantz asserted that he had punctured the decade-old “myth” that only Netanyahu can be prime minister. Challenged the myth, for sure; the leadership battle is most definitely on. But not yet punctured it.