WASHINGTON, DC — Making his debut AIPAC appearance on Monday morning, would-be prime minister Benny Gantz looked stiff and a little hesitant at first. Battle-hardened military chiefs presumably don’t get overly nervous, but when addressing a cavernous hall holding 18,000 listeners preparing to judge your nascent political career, and doing so in a foreign language, some unease is understandable.
Moreover, Israel’s constantly challenging reality had complicated Gantz’s big moment. The man he would succeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had just canceled his AIPAC appearance, scheduled for Tuesday, and announced that he would be heading home straight after meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House later Monday, in order to steward the response to the latest rocket fire from Gaza, which caused injury, shock and no little devastation in central Israel.
In his political appearances back home, Gantz has shown himself to be reasonably articulate, and capable of conveying a certain integrity and passion, but no match for the polished confidence of Netanyahu. He would have known full well that he would be judged against Netanyahu here too, by an audience that treats the prime minister like a rock star, and that he could be found wanting.
Gantz may also have taken some comfort, however, when recalling the difficulties that another previous IDF chief of staff and Israeli political leader, Yitzhak Rabin, often encountered when delivering English-language addresses. Rabin frequently mangled the sentences carefully crafted for him, yet managed to exude a gruff, ex-general’s charisma. However original some of Rabin’s pronunciations, there was never any doubting his convictions.
And, indeed, so it proved with Gantz on Monday. The initial unease gradually gave way to greater assurance. The delivery was certainly not flawless. A few sentences were indeed misspoken. But the AIPAC audience was warm and receptive, ready to applaud and even to cheer, and his text was smartly constructed to encourage them to do so.
He began, correctly, by relating to the rocket attack back home — hailing Israelis’ resilience, endorsing Netanyahu’s decision to head home, assuring these supporters that Israel “will once again prevail.”
“Those that seek life are always stronger than those seeking death,” he declared.
He then turned to his military career — underlining his leadership credentials by highlighting the dangers he’d faced, the responsibilities he’d carried, his commitment to the well-being of the country he now wants to lead. He also revealed that his “first assignment” as a soldier was “to accompany and secure Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Israel” four decades ago — a compelling revelation, this, showing Gantz at once the fighter and a symbolic protector of peace. In these passages, there was plainly a deliberate echo of Rabin’s self-description as a “soldier in the army of peace.”
Part of the military focus was designed as a riposte to Netanyahu, who seeks to characterize him as a weak leftist. And indeed, as Gantz’s speech went on, it was plain that he was seeking to both combat Netanyahu’s efforts to depict him as non-prime ministerial, and to underline how his leadership approach would be different.
“If we want hope, we must have unity,” he asserted early in the address — an implied criticism of Netanyahu, and a tack that resonated particularly deeply at this year’s AIPAC conference, at a time when the bipartisan mission of standing with Israel in politically riven America has become so fraught and complicated.
He stressed the morality of the Israeli army, whose “battle orders include the rules of engagement and the Ten Commandments.”
And he highlighted his own role in the IDF rescue of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan. In a particularly well-choreographed moment, he then pointed out Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, brought to AIPAC especially for the occasion and now a candidate with his Blue and White party — one of those rescued Ethiopian Jews. The applause as she stood in the crowd was long and heartfelt. “Pnina — I am so proud to have you in my party,” Gantz said. “We were sent on that mission because the State of Israel has, and will always have, the moral duty to ensure that every Jew around the world is safe.”
Gantz then moved on to his family’s story — past and present — again to telling effect. He referred to the black and white picture he carries in his wallet of his mother at liberation from Belsen. And to another, this one in color, of his son Nadav, graduating from Paratroopers training. “Between those two photographs lies the story of Israel,” he declared, to cheers. Those photographs “teach us that strength and power must come with high moral standards. They teach us that miracles do not happen on their own.”
Gantz asserted his hardline bona fides by issuing warnings to Iran and to the terror groups, intimating that terror chiefs will not be safe if he runs Israel. (He managed to inject humor into the controversy surrounding Iran’s alleged hacking of his phone: “You know me well — and not only from my cellphone,” he said.) He vowed never to divide Jerusalem, and indicated opposition to Palestinian statehood by promising that “responsibility for security over the entire Land of Israel will remain in the hands of the IDF, and the IDF alone.”
But he also evinced a humane approach, when saying that “I know that the children of Tehran, and the children of Jerusalem, are born free of hate. I know that the Iranian people are waiting for a new dawn — one I hope we will all get to see in our lifetime.”
And he promised, “to those that would like to turn a new page: We will extend our hand in peace and we will strive for peace with any honest and willing Arab leader.” Again, he was rewarded with cheers.
Gantz touched on key American Jewish concerns, including over the status of non-Orthodox Judaism, and prayer at the Western Wall. “In Bergen-Belsen, no-one asked: Who is Reform and who is Conservative, who is Orthodox and who is secular. Before going into battle, I never checked to see who had a kippa under their helmet,” he said in a very effective passage. And as for the Kotel: “I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone. Everyone!”
He praised US President Donald Trump, for recognizing Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as Israeli — again, to warm applause.
And he then related directly to Netanyahu, and the concerns the prime minister’s policies and actions are raising among many Israelis and American Jews. “Divisive dialogue,” he said, “may serve political purposes, but is shredding the fabric that holds us together.”
On his watch, Gantz vowed, “there will be no Kahanists running our country; there will be no racists leading our state institutions; there will be no corruption leading our way.” (There was a very subtle reference to the submarine scandal over which Blue and White is castigating Netanyahu when Gantz promised that “We will firmly keep our security advantage –by air; by land; by sea; and even under the sea.” It was doubtless lost on 99% of the audience.)
He did not name Netanyahu in that passage of criticism. Even at the height of an election campaign, even with the AIPAC family, Israeli politicians hold back when speaking publicly overseas. But the point was made, and the speech was over.
Gantz left the stage to ringing applause. A test had been passed.
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