After weeks when it looked like this general election was about cellphones, stocks and the legalization of marijuana, Monday’s dawn rocket attack was a painful reminder that Israel is still in the Middle East, not the Midwest.
In the two weeks left before voting day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will be tested under fire.
Netanyahu has a tough choice to make.
On the one hand, Israelis do not like war and polls have consistently found that while they can handle a limited number of civilian casualties, they do not tolerate soldiers dying.
On the other hand, the attacks from Gaza require an immediate solution and Netanyahu cannot afford to look weak when his competition on April 9 is not Isaac Herzog or Tzipi Livni but a party led by three former IDF chiefs of staff.
That means Netanyahu must find the elusive middle ground and prove that he is not being controlled by Hamas, while not letting the situation spiral out of control.
Returning from Washington boosted by his positive press conference with US President Donald Trump and a presidential proclamation recognizing Israeli control over the Golan Heights should give Netanyahu momentum.
By contrast, Gantz is coming back from his tests in Washington with mixed grades. His speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference was polished, personal, warm and even funny.
He hit the right buzzwords with American Jewish leaders, earning repeated standing ovations. Speaking in English, Gantz looked comfortable, natural and prime ministerial.
But then he walked into the lion’s den, giving interviews in Hebrew to the prime-time newscasts. It appeared that Channel 12’s Yonit Levi was angered by Netanyahu saying on Saturday night that she treated Gantz like a pet when she interviewed him last week. Suddenly, she turned ferocious.
Levi asked Gantz five times in a row how his Gaza policies would be different from Netanyahu. Ten minutes later, Channel 13’s Tali Moreno asked Gantz four times what he meant when he said in closed conversations that Netanyahu would have him killed if he could.
Even the most seasoned interviewees only have three answers to the same question asked repeatedly. Gantz had no answer ready for either question.
Stuttering, he repeatedly said that such questions did not matter during a heightened security situation. Worst of all, he twice blurted out, “I am not paranoid.”
If Gantz can’t handle Levi and Moreno, how will he handle the heads of Hamas? Unfortunately for the Blue and White Party leader, many more Israelis watched him speak in Hebrew in prime time than his speech in English in the afternoon.
Gantz has two weeks to correct the errors in interviews with the Israeli Hebrew and English media, while Netanyahu faces his own challenges.
How they succeed will determine who will emerge victorious in an election that has suddenly become a lot more serious.