Israel’s most recent ex-army chief Benny Gantz would defeat Benjamin Netanyahu if a race for the prime ministership were held today, according to a Channel 2 survey Saturday night. Gantz is a far more popular choice than Netanyahu for prime minister when not identified with any particular political party, the survey found. Even more impressively, he still narrowly beats Netanyahu at the head of a center-left party.
There’s just one problem, the TV report acknowledged: Gantz is not legally allowed to compete for the premiership for another three years.
Actually there’s a second problem: Israel doesn’t determine its leadership via a vote for prime minister. It’s the head of the party deemed by the president to be best capable of building a coalition who gets the job.
In truth, there’s also a third problem, albeit more easily solved: Gantz has hitherto evinced no desire whatsoever to enter politics.
According to the survey, Gantz, when presented to the public without any party affiliation, is a more popular choice than Netanyahu for prime minister by a wide 44% to 32%. Presented as the head of a center-left party, the survey found, he is the favored prime minister of 41% compared to Netanyahu’s 37%.
Those findings make Gantz the only potential would-be prime minister in the survey capable of beating Likud leader Netanyahu. The pollsters found that Netanyahu overwhelms current Zionist Union and opposition leader Isaac Herzog by 51%-28%; defeats Gantz’s predecessor as chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi by 41%-29%; overcomes ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin 39%-30%; and beats centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid 46%-32%. (Unlike Gantz, Ashkenazi is widely expected to attempt a political career.)
Gantz stepped down as chief of staff in February, handing over to Gadi Eisenkot. However, Gantz only formally ended his army service earlier this month. A three-year mandatory “cooling off” period for ex-security chiefs means he will only be eligible to run for political office by the end of 2018.
The Channel 2 report featured interviewees from center-left parties asserting that this cooling off period was cynically extended from a previous six months to the current three years, in a Knesset vote in March 2007, by aides to Netanyahu, who was anxious to reduce potential competition from ex-security chiefs. However, Yuval Steinitz, the Likud minister and Netanyahu loyalist who initiated that law, insisted that Netanyahu “knew nothing about it ahead of time.”
The TV report also surveyed the public on their attitude to the cooling-off period, and found that 44% favor keeping it at three years, 34% would shorten it, and 11% would extend it further.
On several occasions before such a cooling-off period was introduced, ex-chiefs of staff jumped quickly out of uniform and into politics: Ehud Barak moved across to become Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s defense minister in 1995; Amnon Lipkin-Shahak quickly set up a new political party after his term as chief of staff ended in 1998, and Shaul Mofaz moved from army chief to Likud defense minister in 2002.
In a region that poses constant security threats to Israel, the country’s leaders have often come from the higher echelons of the military. Rabin and Barak both served as chief of staff and prime minister; Ariel Sharon was a general who became prime minister.
Responding to what, essentially, was a survey of zero practical import to Gantz, sources close to him noted dryly that the former chief of staff “is not as enthusiastic about his entering politics as some commentators are.” If he had been rushing to start a political career, indeed, Gantz would presumably have formally handed back his uniform at the first opportunity, in February, and begun the three-year cooling-off period then, rather than waiting another nine months to do so.
The survey did have some genuine if unsurprising significance, however, underlining the degree to which Netanyahu, who was reelected in March, is deemed preferable as prime minister to center-left rivals Herzog and Lapid.