Editor's Notes: What is happening to Gantz?

By
August 29, 2019 22:33
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at swearing in of 21st Knesset

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at swearing in of 21st Knesset. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

At the end of July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video in which he accused Benny Gantz of collaborating with the Obama administration to advance a plan that would have led to Israel withdrawing from most of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley.

The narrative in the video was far from the truth. Besides getting Gantz’s title right – IDF chief of staff – almost everything else was made up. Gantz was in the military at the time of the Obama administration, and didn’t set political policy. That was done by Netanyahu, who as prime minister, asked Gantz to work with General John Allen, who had been tasked by Barack Obama to prepare a plan that would ensure Israeli security in the event that it withdrew from parts of the West Bank.

The plan never materialized, and work on it was stopped at a certain point by then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who warned Netanyahu that a withdrawal from the Jordan Valley would pose an unimaginable threat to the Jewish state.

This story stands out for one primary reason: it is the only example in these elections when material was used from highly secretive security consultations for political purposes. In this case, it was started by Netanyahu and then followed by Gantz, who responded with his version of what had happened.

In the weeks since that video came out, I’ve wondered why Gantz hasn’t done the same, picking a fight with Netanyahu using damaging secretive information that he knows. As chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, Gantz saw Netanyahu in some of his most vulnerable moments. He was commander of the IDF during the 2014 Gaza war, and sat in on the security cabinet meetings as well as countless additional consultations with the prime minister. In 2012, he resisted Netanyahu’s attempts to get the IDF to prepare a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, just months before the US went to presidential elections.

He has heard Netanyahu talk about issues in a way that very few others have. For some politicians, these memories and stories would be political weapons, just like Netanyahu rewrote history to pin the Obama plan on Gantz. So why doesn’t Gantz do the same?

The answer, I think, is simple: that’s just not Gantz’s style. Gantz is a different breed of a politician than some of the other party leaders running in this election. He prefers not to go sling mud, and refuses – even when urged by his advisers – to use his past interactions with Netanyahu to attack him.

It might be something about military men and generals. James Mattis, former secretary of defense who resigned from the Trump cabinet in December, has refused to speak out against the president, whom he reportedly holds in great contempt. In his first interview since stepping down – parts of which were published Thursday by The Atlantic – he still maintains silence.

“You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief,” he says in the interview. “I may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit, but our system puts the commander in chief there.”

This is an admirable trait. Like Mattis, people who know Gantz – even some of his political rivals – talk about a man with a high degree of integrity. Playing dirty politics is just not him, or the way he wants to be remembered. If he wins on September 17, he wants to enter the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem clean.

While that is a nice ambition, national politics is not the IDF. Throughout his career, Gantz has been lucky to have “clean” entries into senior positions. When Gabi Ashkenazi, his predecessor as chief of staff and now political partner, was fighting with Ehud Barak whom to appoint as deputy chief of staff, Gantz was the compromise candidate. When Yoav Gallant, now a Likud minister, lost his appointment as Ashkenazi’s successor, Gantz was called out of retirement to put his uniform back on and take over the IDF. He didn’t have to fight for the jobs; circumstances gave them to him.

In politics though, it doesn’t work that way. You have to get your hands dirty, and you have to be willing to fight, if only to prove to the public that you really want the job. Voters don’t only consider ideology when they go to the ballots but also the candidate’s passion, and whether she or he has fire in their eyes.

This is precisely Gantz’s problem. While he is still strong in polls – at about 30 seats – it seems that many of his voters are voting for him since they think he has the best chance to defeat Netanyahu. It is not that they want him necessarily; it is that they don’t want Netanyahu.

His advisers are aware of this problem, and as a result they will focus in the two-and-a-half weeks left until the elections on his attributes: his integrity, his experience, his compassion and his cleanliness.

SINCE THE beginning though, Gantz’s campaign has been riddled with glitches. In December, the night before Gantz gave his first speech announcing he was entering politics, the text of his speech was leaked to Channel 12 News. In a single night he had to write a new one.

In March, he flew to Washington to speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference. His speech and delivery were impressive, and skeptics were impressed by his ability to shine on a stage usually reserved for Netanyahu. But then the next day, he went on Channel 12 for a live interview from Washington and had his famous “Yo, Yo, Yo, Yonit” slipup.

There was the hacking of his phone ahead of the April election, and the report that came out on Wednesday that two of his cellphones were again recently hacked by the Russians. There is the ongoing tension within the party’s leadership, particularly between Gantz and Yair Lapid, and news that Gantz rehired publicist Ronen Zur despite the public fight he had with Lapid following the election four months ago.

Blue and White members like to shrug off all of these problems as “bumps in the road.” That might be true, and the proof is in the numbers – right now polls show them steady at 30-to-31 seats.

On the other hand, these so-called bumps might be indicative of a larger problem: what will Blue and White look like after the vote on September 17? Will it last as a unified bloc, or will it fall apart and be taken over by mudslinging between its different factions? And if Gantz can’t keep his party members in line, how will he succeed in managing a coalition with competing parties?

In Likud, there are plenty of members who privately criticize Netanyahu and speak about the day he will step down. But publicly there is discipline. No one speaks against him, let alone hire a person with whom the prime minister has a problem.

What Gantz has going for him though is his Mr. Clean image. His reluctance to sling mud and launch personal attacks is a breath of fresh air in Israeli politics, known for backstabbing and insults. That won’t be enough though to come out ahead of Likud in the election and then successfully form a coalition. Starting Sunday, his campaign will enter its most critical stage yet.

***
Speaking of the Jordan Valley: last Friday I drove on Road 90, the highway that runs from Eliat all the way to Metulla. I got on it just near Jericho, and then followed it all the way to the Zemach Junction at the mouth of the Kinneret.

The road is one of the most dangerous in Israel. Last November, on its southern section, eight members of a family were killed in a head-on collision. In June, two young girls – recent immigrants from France – were killed in another accident.

The government has for years pledged to allocate hundreds of millions of shekels needed to upgrade the road, but as of now, nothing has moved forward. The question is why. I fear it has to do with politics.

The section of the road that snakes through the Jordan Valley is not officially part of Israel. The Jordan Valley is part of Area C, which means it is under Israeli security and civil control but not part of Israel. Allocating hundreds of millions of shekels to upgrade the road would have political consequences, not to mention raise questions why the government is again investing in infrastructure over the Green Line.

The thing is, no mainstream political party running in the upcoming election talks about withdrawing from the Jordan Valley – the Likud made that July video against Gantz even though he had already visited the Jordan Valley and declared that it would remain part of Israel forever.

If that is the case, why does the government not invest resources?

The same can be asked about the Golan, a place where Israel applied sovereignty almost 40 years ago but still treats it like it is over some invisible border. After 52 years, there are still only some 25,000 Jews who live in the Golan, alongside some 22,000 Druze. The government constantly talks about luring more people to move there, but there is a severe shortage in proper roads, schools, industrial zones and high-level health clinics. Without employment and quality schools and hospitals, who would be willing to live there?

In both cases – the Golan and the Jordan Valley - we see examples of what happens when there is indecisiveness, and a fear of doing something that is controversial.

The problem is that it doesn’t make sense. Politically, the Trump administration has already recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan; and from a security standpoint, everyone – Israelis and Palestinians – would gain from upgraded infrastructure in the Jordan Valley.

Elections are an opportunity to recalibrate as a country. Its time to make some decisions.


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