Israeli elections – a tale of two Benjamins

With elections scheduled for April 9, there is a new Benjamin in town, and he seems to be taking Israel by storm.

Collage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. (photo credit: GALI TIBBON/POOL VIA REUTERS & MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Collage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
Everyone knows about Benjamin (nicknamed “Bibi”) Netanyahu: soon to be Israel’s longest serving prime minister; powerful international spokesman; skilled diplomat; and expert economist.
Then there is the flip side that is better known in Israel: sometimes indecisive in battle; and not resolute enough in meeting the challenge of settlement in the strategic, mountainous heartland of Israel – Judea and Samaria (the so-called “West Bank”) – and of course, in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital since the days of King David over 3,000 years ago.
Once labeled “King Bibi” by an American magazine due to his seemingly irreplaceable status, things may be changing for Netanyahu and his Likud party. With the attorney-general about to announce a possible bribery indictment against him, Netanyahu seems to be somewhat in defensive mode as his nation enters election season once again.
With elections scheduled for April 9, there is a new Benjamin in town, and he seems to be taking Israel by storm. Formerly chief of staff of the IDF, Benny Gantz has entered politics for the first time, forming his own Israel Resilience Party, and seriously challenging Netanyahu’s predominant right-of-center Likud. Recent polls show Gantz lagging just a few percentage points behind.
With seven weeks remaining until the election, Gantz is already the darling of the media. In a country that has always been enamored of generals, and which always seems to be searching for the latest messiah in the form of a new centrist party, Gantz seems to fit the current perceived need. Voters are flocking in droves to the tall and handsome Gantz, especially from the establishment left-wing Labor Party, which seems to be self-destructing more and more with each passing day.
Unlike the United States, Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the citizens vote not for an individual, but for a party. And the leader of the largest party has the challenge of forming a coalition with smaller parties, the goal being to attain a majority of seats in the Knesset.
Having said that, one might think the focus would be on the issues, not on good looks or past military prestige. But in the age of mass media, surface appeal is unavoidable. Until last week, Gantz didn’t need to say a word on policy to achieve his strong standing in the polls. In fact, from his perspective, it was better not to say anything. But in a tiny country like Israel where most issues are potentially explosive, issues eventually need to be confronted, and that’s what happened last week as the campaign began to pick up steam.
In his maiden policy speech, Gantz raised many eyebrows by praising Israel’s now unpopular 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, in which some 10,000 Israelis were forcibly expelled from their homes in a bitter and painful process that nearly tore the fabric of the country apart.
ACCORDING TO Gantz, “It was a legal move that was adopted by the Israeli government and carried out by the IDF and the settlers in a painful but good way. We have to take those lessons and implement them in other places.”
With President Donald Trump’s peace plan still not released, but already being publicly debated, it behooves all Israelis, as well as Americans who care about Israel, to understand that the “land-for-peace” formula – which has been recycled and regurgitated by virtually every American administration in recent years – was proven dead after the Gaza withdrawal, when the Hamas terrorist organization set up its rocket launching pads on the ruins of the once-peaceful and thriving Jewish communities.
By clearly hinting at further withdrawals from Judea and Samaria as being a positive option for an Israel that wants “to learn its lessons,” Gantz is going against an Israel mainstream that, to a great extent, is now opposing the land-for-peace formula. In one recent poll, only 36% of Israelis believed that further withdrawals would bring peace. Now that Gantz is speaking out, his 2014 Gaza war conduct is also being questioned, after he said it was correct to risk the lives of IDF soldiers in order to help reduce collateral civilian casualties among the enemy population in Gaza. The statement is especially disturbing since it is well known that in every armed conflict, Hamas intentionally hides its armed forces, its weapons factories, and its missile launchers in civilian population centers, daring Israel to attack.
Yes, it is certainly true that Gantz is the new attractive face and popular new politician in a country that loves its generals-turned-politicians. Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin brought us the failed Oslo peace process, which led to the bloodiest wave of terrorism in Israel’s history. Several years later, prime minister Ehud Barak proposed surrendering 95% of Judea and Samaria and half of Jerusalem, a suicidal proposal for Israel, which was nonetheless ridiculed by Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the so-called Palestinians. Gen. Benny Gantz is continuing the tradition of posing as a tough, military centrist to get elected as prime minister, but eventually revealing his left-wing stripes.
Netanyahu is a sometimes flawed, but experienced leader who has steered the Israeli ship of state through some unstable waters, developing new cooperative relationships in the Middle East at a time when they are badly needed and desired. The current existential threat from an Iran seeking to attack Israel from both Lebanon and Syria, while achieving nuclear bomb status, requires a firmness and resolve that Gantz and his potential partners on the Left clearly don’t possess. We’re not referring to personal weakness, but a weakness rooted in the failed land-for-peace ideology that has never worked.
If Netanyahu’s Likud wins, and especially if his potential coalition partners to his Right also perform well, Israelis can sleep more soundly. As Benjamin Netanyahu faces his most difficult challenges, the world should know that he is still the better Benjamin. Benny Gantz is not the messiah.
The writer is the former mayor of Shiloh; author of ‘Trump and the Jews’; and the founder and president of Shiloh Israel Children’s Fund, established after he and his three-year-old son were wounded in a terrorist attack. or