Israel Pulse

Former IDF chief takes position as Netanyahu's top rival

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Article Summary
In his well-rehearsed first speech former IDF chief Benny Gantz presented himself as the primary challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his maiden political speech on the evening of Jan. 29 at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, former army chief Benny Gantz declared himself on live prime-time television as the prime ministerial candidate the center-left will support. Beyond the declarations and commitments to voters as he launched the campaign of his newly minted Israel Resilience Party, Gantz was aiming for a speedy knockout of the other wannabe prime ministers in the political center and on the left. He aspired to position himself firmly as the leading candidate among these parties as he takes on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 9.

In recent weeks, Gantz was courted by the chair of centrist Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, who offered him the number-two spot on his Knesset slate, and by Labor leader Avi Gabbay. His appearance this week silenced all speculation that he might team up with anyone and made him a real threat to both parties. Some in Labor had believed they could depose Gabbay and convince Gantz to lead them. “If he says yes, Gabbay will not be able to oppose it,” a senior party figure told Al-Monitor at the time.

On Tuesday, however, Gantz left Lapid and Gabbay behind, taking up his position at the head of the anti-Netanyahu camp, and the media crowned him Netanyahu’s main rival. Lapid and Gabbay have the most to lose as he forges ahead of them in the polls, and they were silent the next morning as they worked to chart a new course.

Since establishing his party, Gantz has spoken little. Those who met with him in recent weeks got the impression of a total lack of political understanding. Until he broke his silence this week, some predicted that the former chief of staff would trip as he left the gate. Gantz, however, came well prepared for his first test. He donned a sharp suit and tie, in marked contrast to his usual casual appearance, and had obviously benefited from some serious coaching to hone his oratorical ability and stage presence.

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Gantz' audience did not have to wait long before he clearly stated that he wants to be prime minister, speaking of “the government under my leadership.” He also let fly a volley of threats, direct and personal, against Israel’s enemies, such as his warning to President Hassan Rouhani: “I know you are plotting to encircle Israel. … I will thwart your plot.”

Gantz also took on Netanyahu, though he mentioned his name only twice. He directed his tough talk against “the government,” but it was clear at whose underbelly he was aiming his arrows. Invoking Louis XIV, Gantz recalled that there was once a king who declared, “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.” Obviously, he was referring to the investigations into suspected corruption in the Netanyahu family and juicy tales from the prime minister’s residence.

According to political sources, the speech took a long time to compose. Lines were written and deleted at dizzying speed. Its content bore the hallmarks of the political center. The text was tailored for supporters of the right and peace lovers on the left and for those fed up with corruption to make Gantz Netanyahu’s only rival on April 9. Gantz and his people know that he is not operating in a vacuum on the center-left, and from the get-go they went for an image of Gantz going head-to-head against Netanyahu, borne by a momentum of change and transformation. Gantz lived up to expectations, projecting a clean, new and fresh persona. In so doing, he might have surprised Lapid, who had still held out hope of a joint run.

Gantz also made the surprising decision to team up with former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likud minister to whom he promised the number-two slot on his Knesset slate and two slots for candidates of his choosing among the top 10 on the slate. The two slots have been promised to right-wing commentator Yoaz Hendel and former Cabinet Secretary and Likud member Zvi Hauser — both of whom used to work for Netanyahu. The choice provides Gantz with a seal of approval as he eyes voters on the moderate right. His photo with Ya’alon — two former army leaders, one of whom also served as defense minister, was designed to wipe out Netanyahu’s advantage as an authority on defense matters.

A new political game has now begun. Gantz is no longer just a target of vitriol from the right that started even before his first speech. He is also a rival of Gabbay and even of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, chair of the center-right Kulanu, but foremost of Lapid. The more he forges ahead of him in the polls, the louder the calls will be for Lapid to team up with Gantz for the greater good: bringing down the Netanyahu regime. Another general, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, has been shuttling back and forth between the two and is expected to keep conditioning his entry into politics on a union between Gantz and Lapid, for which he would be willing to set aside his ego and accept the number-three spot.

For now Lapid is standing firm, having predicted the turn of events in recent days — that the long-anticipated Gantz speech would create initial momentum in his favor. Lapid is also aiming for the premiership, even if it entails another term in the Knesset opposition. He knows that joining Gantz would kill his dream. For years, Lapid has built up his party into a well-oiled machine. He enjoys a loyal following that guarantees him eight or nine Knesset seats, and he has both tremendous ambition and patience. He will wait several days, assess his situation and the extent of the damage he has suffered in the latest polls and then decide on a new strategy.

The most significant element of Gantz’ campaign launch was his direct and unambiguous entry into the arena against Netanyahu. The speech he delivered was designed to convey one clear message — here is a man running to be prime minister.

Having gotten his feet wet, Gantz will now have to navigate carefully through the next two months, an eternity in an election campaign. Both the right and left will come for him. It will be tough, different from any battle he has known. In the coming days, the fight for leadership of the anti-Netanyahu camp will play out and determine whether the April 9 fight will be between Benny and Bibi.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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