Would-be PM Gantz sells himself as the vital antidote to toxic, aloof Netanyahu
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AnalysisHe came across as an honest man, calculating but not cynical

Would-be PM Gantz sells himself as the vital antidote to toxic, aloof Netanyahu

In first political speech, ex-army chief depicts PM as a haughty, corrupt monarch, tearing Israeli society apart, and himself as a unifier and healer. Will the electorate be wooed?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech, in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)
Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz delivers his first electoral speech, in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

In the first 18 minutes of Benny Gantz’s maiden political speech Tuesday — the 18 minutes that Hadashot TV news broadcast live before it cut away for reactions — he only once named the man he seeks to replace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And that was ostensibly to commend him.

Hailing the first Likud prime minister Menachem Begin for making peace with Egypt, and the assassinated Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for making peace with Jordan, Gantz then applauded Netanyahu, for having signed agreements with the Palestinians in an effort to make peace with them, too. All three leaders were “Israeli patriots,” declared Gantz, and quickly silenced some murmuring in the crowd from those who were unpersuaded.

But make no mistake. The former IDF chief of staff, appointed to that post by none other than Netanyahu eight years ago, had most definitely come to bury the prime minister, not to praise him.

And his strategy, laid bare in an address that was jam-packed with commitments to heal the country’s woes, was to depict Netanyahu as nothing less than Israel’s enemy within. (Full text of Gantz speech here.)

On security and diplomatic issues, Gantz staked out relatively hawkish positions — thoroughly aware that Netanyahu and the Likud are seeking to portray him as a weak man and a leftist, someone who cannot be trusted with overall responsibility for Israel’s security, someone who might give away the store to Israel’s hostile neighbors. “In the harsh and violent Middle East surrounding us, there is no mercy for the weak,” he said, using terminology straight out of the Netanyahu playbook. “Only the strong survive.”

He talked tough against Iran (“I will thwart your plots in the north, south, and anywhere else in the Middle East”) and against Islamist terror chiefs. He pledged to “strengthen the settlement blocs” and never leave the Golan Heights, to retain the Jordan Valley as Israel’s eastern security border, and to “maintain security in the entire Land of Israel” — a position that is hard to depict as being to the left of Netanyahu’s, in that it would appear to rule out a fully independent Palestinian state. In similarly hawkish language, he vowed that a united Jerusalem “will remain forever the capital of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel.”

But most of his speech was focused on his promises to tackle Israel’s internal challenges — its inequalities, the threats to its democracy and, especially, its divisions. “The people are strong. The country is wonderful,” he said at the very start. “But in the land a bad wind blows.” And its source, he made crystal clear, was Netanyahu.

Are there enough Israelis who have had their fill of Netanyahu — who respect the prime minister for protecting Israel from without, but for whom Gantz’s critique of the divisions within will resonate? Are there enough Israelis, in our deeply polarized society, who will find Gantz’s pledge to foster unity credible and, even if so, attractive? Or are we all far too world-weary for such talk?

Israel was riven between left and right, between religious and secular, between Jew and non-Jew — and it was the government that was fostering and exacerbating those ruptures, he asserted. “Politics is ugly, and the public arena has become poisoned.”

“The current regime,” he charged, “encourages incitement, subversion and hatred. The basic values of Israeli statehood have been converted into the mannerisms of a French royal house,” he went on in one particularly bitter and colorful passage. “Instead of serving the people, the government looms over the people and finds the people to be a bore.”

Invoking Louis XIV, he recalled that there was once a king who declared “that I am the state.” No, said Gantz, “not here. No Israeli leader is a king. The state is not me. The state is you… The state is all of us.” And therefore, he summed up, with the arrogance of a former chief of staff, “I thank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his service for ten years. We will continue from here.”

Where Netanyahu had fostered hatred, Gantz swore, he would nurture a “unified, united, cohesive society.” In contrast to Netanyahu, who has targeted the media, the opposition, the police and the state prosecution as he battles corruption allegations, under prime minister Gantz “there will be no incitement against the judicial, cultural and media institutions,” and no attacks on the police chief and the attorney general. In short, “we will not instill hatred against half a people on the right or half on the left.”

Gantz came across as an honest, decent and responsible man, delivering a very carefully calibrated speech that was overlong on promises, and was most effective when presenting himself as a unifying antidote to the toxic, divisive Netanyahu.

He hammered away at Netanyahu’s personal conduct, vowing “zero tolerance for corruption of any kind” and declaring that the notion of a prime minister continuing to serve while under indictment would be “ridiculous.” He himself, Gantz said succinctly, “always kept my hands clean.”

As the speech continued, Gantz went on to set out a frankly impossible array of issues he would resolve, tensions he would ameliorate. Just about everything Israelis find bleak today would be altogether rosier tomorrow, he indicated. He’d fix the health service and the housing crisis; reach out to the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs and the Druze; rebuild relations with the Diaspora; reduce the cost of living; improve education; grant full rights to the gay community; resolve disputes over Shabbat observance; ensure that the burden of national service is shared fairly; smash the glass ceilings keeping women from full equality… On and on it went — a rehabilitation list that would test the capabilities of the Messiah.

Few Israelis would have been persuaded that any mere mortal could achieve what he called this “major course of restoration.” Indeed, it may have been fortunate for Gantz that, by this stage, his speech was no longer being broadcast live.

Former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz (right) and his electoral ally former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon open their election campaign, in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Gantz’s whole campaign launch — including the introduction of his new running mate: another former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon — was over in less than an hour. His immediate hope is that his performance will boost his Israel Resilience Party in the polls, and thereby weaken that other centrist party, Yesh Atid. Gantz would like to forge an alliance with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, but neither man wishes to be the other’s deputy.

But what of his ultimate goal, to unseat Netanyahu on April 9? Initially rather stiff at the microphone, Gantz relaxed a little as he got into his stride, but he’s plainly no Netanyahu-class orator. Neither does he have the gruff anti-charisma of a Rabin, or the passion of a Begin. He came across, rather, as an honest, decent and responsible man, delivering a very carefully calibrated speech that was overlong on promises, and was most effective when presenting himself as a unifying antidote to the toxic, divisive Netanyahu.

Are there enough Israelis who have had their fill of Netanyahu — who respect the prime minister for protecting Israel from without, but for whom Gantz’s critique of the divisions within will resonate? Are there enough Israelis, in our deeply polarized society, who will find Gantz’s pledge to foster unity credible and, even if so, attractive? Or are we all far too world-weary for such talk?

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a September 11, 2013, Navy ceremony (AP Photo: Dan Balilty)

We are now about to find out. And to discover whether this tall, straight, career soldier, unused to having his authority questioned, can swiftly acquire the political skills and, yes, the political cunning, necessary to outflank King Bibi. Maybe there was just a glimpse of that in his reference to Israeli patriot Netanyahu, who, said Gantz, strove for peace by signing “the Hebron evacuation agreement and the Wye agreement with the murderer Yasser Arafat.” Praising the prime minister and burying him at the same time.

Overall, though, Gantz’s speech was calculated but not cynical. It was an appeal to the good in Israelis’ souls, to the hope in their hearts. “I reject, outright, bitterness, apathy and despair,” he declared at one point. And, right at the end: “I believe in people and in the human spirit. I believe in the unique Israeli combination of tradition and modernity, Judaism and democracy. But most of all, I believe – like you – in hope. Together, I will make Israel a strong and united country of hope.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev, a Netanyahu loyalist who was among the first to savage Gantz’s speech, dismissed passages such as that one as “a collection of slogans.”

Is that how most Israelis will see it? Or might they see inspiration?

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