Israel Pulse

Israelis embrace Gantz as Bibi's opposite

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Article Summary
The level head and plain good luck that have accompanied Benny Gantz throughout his military career could now get the Blue and White leader into the premier’s seat.

In terms of personality, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, are polar opposites. This week, the 20th chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces completed one of the most amazing and incredible journeys ever recorded in Israeli politics.

It began 60 years ago on a small cooperative farm in southern Israel, continued through religious primary schooling and yeshiva, followed by military service in the paratroopers and culminated, against great odds, in the top echelon of the IDF. Unlike previous political meteors, such as former IDF chief and Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Netanyahu himself, Gantz was never singled out as a leader destined for greatness and never displayed burning ambition. However, he kept moving up the ranks, often boosted by a tremendous dose of luck.

A mere nine months after braving Israel’s electoral jungle, that same luck has made him a serious contender for the prime minister’s position. His prospects of forming Israel’s next government based on his Blue and White Party’s lead in the Sept. 17 elections currently seem far better than those of the incumbent.

“What the state needs now is simple,” Gantz told Al-Monitor some three weeks ago. “The internal wound needs to be healed, the divisions need to be bridged, the people need to be calmed down, and all this must be done without undermining the state’s security or economy.” Gantz views himself as the right man at the right time and place to carry out this mission. He is a laid-back individual not known for the type of acrimony Netanyahu is, and unlike his Blue and White co-chair Yair Lapid, he does not draw fire from the ultra-Orthodox parties. His somewhat neutral demeanor gives a distinct advantage.

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This week’s election results prove that Israelis are fed up with incitement to hatred, attempts to sow discord and the vitriol churned out by Netanyahu’s political machine against anyone who does not conform to its dictates. The results indicate that over a quarter of a million Israelis abandoned the right since the previous vote in April. Netanyahu and his Likud satellites lost 11 Knesset seats. Voters preferred Gantz, the restrained, lackluster and not particularly articulate candidate, to the brilliant, poisonous alternative. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the second elections of 2019.

He was an ordinary army chief who got the job done. Still, Gantz is a wise man with high standards and an easygoing personality. Unlike many of his predecessors, he is not obsessive and does not carry a chip on his shoulder. On the contrary: With his height, good looks and successful career, Gantz is used to things going his way. He does not fight tooth-and-nail to get ahead, but nonetheless ended up in one of the state’s most senior positions.

Gantz was once deputy chief of staff but not considered material for the top job. After Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant was appointed to lead the military in August 2010, a disappointed Gantz left the service and even planned to give an angry interview to one of the local television stations. Before he could do so, however, the government revoked Galant’s appointment in an unprecedented move over a suspicious real estate deal. Gantz was not the first alternative under consideration. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak considered Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who was discounted as not ready for the post that he would get four years later and tried another major general before ultimately offerering Gantz the job.

That decision turned Gantz into what he is today, the IDF’s 20th chief of staff who may become the 13th prime minister of the State of Israel.

He led the IDF through the 2014 war with Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge and orchestrated profound changes in the IDF’s operational doctrine and strategic preparedness in the wake of the Arab Spring developments and the collapse of the Syrian army. Despite wide criticism of his handling of the 2014 war, the 51-day operation restored Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas and earned it a three-year lull in rocket attacks from Gaza. Paradoxically, if Gantz does take the helm of Israel’s next government, Gaza will be the most pressing issue on his agenda.

Gantz’ foray into Israeli politics began less than a year ago. The initial feelers he put out included indirect contacts with Netanyahu. In conversations with associates, Gantz discussed taking a position in Netanyahu’s government — as defense minister after the resignation of Avigdor Liberman in November 2018, as education minister or even as Israeli ambassador in Washington. Gantz had served as Israel’s military attaché in the American capital and enjoyed close ties with senior defense officials and blended in well with the Washington milieu.

He also turned out to be popular with the Israeli public. Israelis took to the tall, handsome soldier and his name began leading the betting pools on Netanyahu’s potential replacement. At that point, Netanyahu was still leading the polls by a formidable majority and Gantz was the only potential successor, blipping on the radar far behind him.

Gantz deliberated at length whether to dive into the dangerous waters of Israeli politics, but eventually established the Israel Resilience Party in December 2018 and joined forces with former chief of staff and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. At the last minute, just before the start of campaigning for the April 2019 elections, he pulled off an ambitious move, uniting with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party and bringing on board the ever-popular Maj. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, his predecessor as chief of staff. Three former army chiefs, one of them also a former defense minister, along with Yair Lapid, faced off against a political dragon named Netanyahu.

It took two election cycles to defeat Netanyahu. However, while the September elections produced a clear loser, they did not yield a total winner. To cobble together a coalition of parties for a Knesset majority, Gantz will have to line up the country’s wiliest political foxes and find nerves of steel to get through the tense months it will take to form a government. Judging by his record, luck will be on his side, likely allowing him to move into the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street before the end of the year.

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Found in: israeli elections, israeli politics, likud, blue and white party, benjamin netanyahu, benny gantz

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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