Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worst nightmares came true on Jan. 29, as Benny Gantz, former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, became his number one election rival. Gantz defied preliminary expectations and exuded a persuasive presence, revealing his stripes as a true leader during a speech at Tel Aviv’s Convention Center. Television stations broadcast Gantz for 21 consecutive minutes in prime time, which for Netanyahu probably seemed like eons.
The speech was followed moreover by substantive televised discussions, highlighting the importance of the event. It all ended with an additional unwelcome surprise for the current prime minister: Another former IDF chief of staff is joining forces with Gantz for the April 9 elections. Thus, Netanyahu finds himself facing Moshe Ya’alon, his former defense minister and leader of the new party Telem, as well as his former chief of staff in Gantz on one ticket.
Gantz has his eye on additional connections and alliances. If he succeeds in convincing another former chief of staff, such as Gabi Ashkenazi, who also served under Netanyahu, to join his party, Israel Resilience, he’ll be able to offer a powerful security alternative to Netanyahu, something no one has done in ages. Such a development would make it even more difficult for Netanyahu to pull another rabbit out of his hat at the moment of truth, as he did in the 2015 elections when he inundated Israel with security threats and “Arabs on the fence” video clips with warnings of “Hamastan” on Israel’s borders. It was such tactics that brought him victory over Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog, who lacked his bulletproof aura.
Gantz has never been considered a charismatic individual, but what made the difference in his strong television appearance was his meticulous preparation, a speech heavy on slogans and messages and a complementary environment crafted with professionalism. From the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, Netanyahu glimpsed the first real alternative to his own claims to the title of Mr. Security.
Gantz has survived the “cooling-off period” of four years mandated by Netanyahu in a law that allowed the prime minister to neutralize members of Israel’s defense establishment for four years — three for cooling-off years plus one to “adapt” to civil life — before entering the world of politics. Ya’alon had completed his mandatory period earlier, but the big prize remaining on the shelf is Gabi Ashkenazi.
Many in Israel view Ashkenazi as the person capable of attracting significant numbers of right-wing votes to Israel Resilience. Ashkenazi has qualities that Gantz and Ya’alon lack: He is viewed as an unpretentious man who talks at eye-level to the public, like a Likud member. As of now, Ashkenazi will not join Israel Resilience until the centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid do so. It is possible, however, that the high standing of the Gantz-Ya’alon alliance in the polls will convince Ashkenazi that Israel Resilience is indeed capable of fomenting a political revolution. If Ashkenazi were to join, the sky would be the limit.
So far, Gantz’s strategy has been developing according to plan. He announced his candidacy and made a convincing debut in the polls. He has built up expectations and surpassed Lapid and Yesh Atid in the polls to emerge as a possible alternative to Netanyahu — all in the last two weeks. There is now some logic to Gantz asking Lapid to join him as number two.
At this stage, Gantz had planned to bring another security figure into his party, going to the next level. That is where we are now. What does Gantz want, next? To rise even higher in the polls and obtain more than 20 Knesset member mandates while lowering Netanyahu's to similar numbers. The Likud currently has 30-32 mandates according to the polls.
Strategic changes are afoot in the Israeli political arena with the possibly start of a new game. The path there, however, is still a long one. On the one hand, Netanyahu is the most experienced and ruthless player in town by far. On the other hand, even an experienced player experiences trials and tribulations, and based on the Likud's agitated reactions to Gantz's speech, it seems Netanyahu is in trouble.
Netanyahu’s plan is simple, and his success rate with it, during 10 years in power, is perfect — brand Gantz a left winger. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel’s left has become a curse word. Anyone called a “leftist” is banished to the desert isle of low ratings and few voters. That said, Netanyahu will find it difficult to taint Gantz with being a leftist.
Gantz’s major general past, Ya’alon’s jumping on the bandwagon, and the political platform Gantz just presented — with soft center-right principles and a vague statement about “striving for peace” — will constrict Netanyahu’s wiggle room. In addition to all of Netanyahu’s other problems, it has emerged that two of his closest former associates have joined Ya’alon’s Telem and will run on the Gantz-Ya’alon list.
The two men — Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary and life-long Likud member Zvi Hauser and Netanyahu’s former communications director Yoaz Hendel — are both solid members of the soft right. In 2012, Netanyahu banished them from the prime minister's office. Their crime? They identified, warned against and lodged a complaint about the sexually abusive behavior of Natan Eshel, head of the prime minister’s office, toward a female employee. Eshel was forced to leave the bureau, while Netanyahu banished the gatekeepers. Now, unsurprisingly, they are returning to run against him.
Gantz, who had hardly said a word since founding Israel Resilience on Dec. 27, spoke for about half an hour on Jan 29. His speech was incisive and addressed all of Netanyahu’s weak points without mentioning the prime minister by name. Gantz alluded to “mannerisms of a French royal house” and asserted that “instead of serving the people, the government looms over the people and finds the people to be a bore.” He made reference to “a government that feeds anxieties to ensure its own survival.”
Gantz has put his finger on the societal situation in Israel, the relentless incitement and attacks on the gatekeepers and the labeling of anyone who doesn’t bow down to Netanyahu as a “left-wing traitor.” All these things, he said, constitute the prime minister’s Achille’s heel. Gantz’s in-depth polls show that even veteran Likud members are tired of the tempests and turmoil and want some peace and quiet for a change. Gantz promises to deliver quiet. In effect, he is presenting himself as the new Netanyahu but without the problematic trappings and tendencies.
Several questions remain: What character traits might Gantz demonstrate in place of those attributed to Netanyahu? What will Yair Lapid do now?
Only a little more than three weeks remains for submitting candidate and party lists to the Knesset. The most critical moment of Israel’s election campaign is upon us.
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