Israel’s Gantz must offer real alternative to Netanyahu

If he wants to become a real leader and create a real alternative to the next government formed by reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz must fight for the peace camp and tell Israelis' Arab neighbors they have a partner.

al-monitor Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz delivers a speech during Israel's parliamentary election at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 10, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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benjamin netanyahu, israeli-palestinian negotiations, israeli politics, blue and white party, israeli elections, benny gantz

Apr 11, 2019

“Do we have anyone better than Netanyahu?” Almost every Israeli has come up against this question about a possible alternative to the prime minister, who has been steering the ship of state for the past decade. There was one potential helmsman, Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, but though he had led soldiers on the battlefield for decades, three months were not enough time to win public trust in his ability to navigate. An “anyone but Netanyahu” agenda might have been good enough to pinch votes from Labor and Meretz on the left and even from center-right Kulanu. After joining forces with centrist Yesh Atid and establishing the Blue and White Party, Gantz put up a good fight. However, as the results of the April 9 elections prove, hatred of Netanyahu and dissemination of fear over the demise of Israeli democracy are not enough to wrest power from the right.

If Gantz and his fellow generals in the party leadership want to govern Israel, they should keep in mind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inspirational words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As the US president said in his 1933 inaugural address, fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” War heroes such as Gantz and his co-leader Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi have retreated from the left like chocolate soldiers and uttered the word “peace” only under duress.

True, such was the advice of their campaign managers, who directed them to cull votes from the most obvious places and blur the distinction between left and right. Gantz’ partnership with the leader of the small right-wing Telem Party, Lt. Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, and former Netanyahu aides Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser also dictated this strategy. But as they take their new seats on the Knesset’s opposition benches, the three will have to take off their masks. When Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition proposes initiatives to annex the occupied territories, Blue and White lawmakers will have to decide whether they are left or right. Even if they insist on claiming they are political centrists, Netanyahu will tag them as leftists. The election results show how hard it is to deal with Netanyahu’s “leftist” smears. The most effective method is one that turns this mark of shame into a badge of honor. For example, at a 1999 election rally, after actor Tiki Dayan famously labeled Netanyahu supporters “riffraff,” the Likud turned the tables on her and printed stickers saying, “We are proud riffraff.”

When the ballot boxes closed at 22:00, Gantz was told by some pollsters that his party had won more sets than the Likud. Excited, Gantz hurried to deliver a premature victory speech. But instead of starting off his embarrassing victory speech with a “priestly blessing” in a pathetic bid to court the national-religious voters who shunned him, Gantz should have turned to the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps with a battle cry of “follow me,” in the manner of courageous military leaders. He could have referred to the speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a Feb. 6 gathering of Jewish and Arab peace activists in which he said the Palestinian people hope for a new Israeli leadership that will promise the people of the region security and prosperity. The Palestinian leader pledged, “A government that extends its hand in peace will meet our hand extended in peace.” His arm has been left hanging.

Blue and White leaders should have said loudly and clearly that perpetuating the Israeli occupation by annexation is a recipe for Jewish apartheid. They should have urged the West Bank settlers to leave occupied Palestinian lands. Gantz also passed up an opportunity to praise Arab League leaders for reaffirming the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative at their summit last month and to tell Israel’s Arab neighbors they have a partner for negotiations. No less importantly, Gantz and his fellows should have taken the opportunity to propose a new partnership with Israel’s Arab citizens, one based on the principles set out in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sitting side by side on the opposition benches could pave the way for Blue and White’s reconciliation with representatives of the Arab parties, without whom a left-wing Zionist party has little chance of ever assuming power. In reaching out to their Arab compatriots, Blue and White must also adhere to both its Jewish identity and Israel’s secular culture.

“Jewish Israelis prefer religionization over zero Jewish identity,” said Leah Shakdiel, an Israeli educator and board member of the religious Jewish Oz V’Shalom peace movement, in an April 9 interview with Al-Monitor. “National identities are also secular identities, but they must be well grounded in national history and culture,” Shakdiel added.

Shakdiel suggests nurturing a humanistic, comprehensive Jewish agenda. In addition, she suggests establishing a political-left parliamentarian forum. Following that, she proposes to work toward the foundation of a party that would unite Jewish democratic identities with Palestinian (both Muslim and Christian) democratic identities. The unification of these elements and values into one political platform would strengthen Israeli democracy. It would also counter-balance the unholy alliance of three evils. The first is that of a religion enveloped by racism and primitive fundamentalism. The second is aggressive capitalism championed by a new generation that is successful business and education wise, yet insensitive politically. Zehut head Moshe Feiglin, from the far-right, personifies this trampling capitalism. The third evil that must be thwarted, explains Shakdiel, is the lack of a coherent Jewish humanistic worldview, a lack that abandons the Jewish secular identity into the hands of blunt militarism. The social activist from the southern town of Yeruham also warns against what she called “Lapidism,” a reference to the secular, anti-clerical agenda of Yair Lapid, who “denies the reality of Israel’s criminal rule of another nation and the destruction of Israeli democracy.”

On the day after elections, Lapid warned that he and the Blue and White Party would “make life miserable” for Netanyahu and the Likud from their perch on the opposition benches. “We will turn the Knesset into a battlefield,” he added. “We are not here to wrap up the 2019 campaign, but to launch the 2020 campaign.”

Gantz should beware of adopting Lapid’s method of “making life miserable” for the governing right. When Lapid moved over to the opposition after the 2015 elections, he spent much of his time globetrotting, uttering hollow “I Love Israel” slogans and insulting Arab Knesset members. The 2019 elections show us once again that anyone trying to bypass Netanyahu on the right ends up either in the opposition, or, like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party, on the margins, battling to pass the Knesset entry threshold.

Paradoxically, a speedy decision by the attorney general to indict Netanyahu on charges of corruption would not serve Blue and White well. If new elections are held too soon, Gantz will not have enough time to complete his political boot camp and prove his mettle as a national leader offering a new agenda. He will have to prove his skill in uniting the forces of peace and democracy around him. Blue and White will have to show it can convince masses of Israelis to build defenses against corruption and decay and to deal with the despair and indifference that have taken root among wide swaths of the public.

The next time Israelis go to the polls, when someone asks, “Do you have anyone better than Netanyahu?,” the answer  "certainly, Benny Gantz" — is going to need to be more convincing. 

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