Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When former IDF chief of general staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak entered politics, he did so, he said, in order to “restore the smile” to Israeli citizens’ faces following the depressing three years of Binyamin Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister, back at the end of the last century.
Not surprisingly, given such a nebulous aim, Lipkin-Shahak never made it as a politician. Despite having been a charismatic commanding officer noted for his outstanding personal courage and judicious, low-key leadership, Lipkin-Shahak failed to translate military success into the political arena. The Center Party he helped establish won only six seats in the 1999 elections and within three years, Lipkin-Shahak quit national politics.
IDF chief of staffs have a mixed record when it comes to a second career in politics. On the Left, Yitzhak Rabin
and Ehud Barak made it to the Prime Minister’s Office, both doing so within the framework of the Labor Party, using a well-oiled, politically proven vehicle to drive them into power. Other post-1967 chiefs of staff, such as Motta Gur and Haim Bar-Lev also joined Labor, but never succeeded in challenging Rabin or Shimon Peres for the party’s leadership.
On the right, Rafael “Raful” Eitan set up the ultra-nationalist (but anti-religious) Tzomet Party, winning a handful of seats over the years, but never enough to bring him a major ministerial portfolio in the Likud governments headed by Yitzhak Shamir and later Netanyahu.
Other ex-chiefs of staff who joined the Likud initially prospered better. Shaul Mofaz signed up with Ariel Sharon, becoming defense minister in Sharon’s Likud government and then moving with him (after having first declared he would never leave the Likud) to Kadima where, like Kadima itself, his political career deservedly fizzled out. One more chief of staff, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, joined the Likud and within four years became defense minister, only to resign in 2016 amidst speculation Netanyahu was just about to fire him.
This mixed record, with very few real successes, hasn’t stopped former military chiefs from attempting to capture the Knesset. Since Rabin, eight out of his 13 successors have thrown their military berets into the ring, with Benny Gantz reportedly the latest to join the firing line.
According to a television news report earlier this month, Gantz has established a new political party to run in next year’s Knesset elections. He’s gathered the 100 signatories he needs to send the party’s documents to the Registrar of Political Parties and is now waiting for elections to be called before pulling the trigger.
Nevertheless, the political pollsters – and the main political players – are already including Gantz in their polling-day scenarios. A Channel 10 poll last month, placing Gantz at the head of his own center-left party, showed he would win 15 Knesset seats, taking two from the Likud, five from the centrist Yesh Atid, and four from the center-left Zionist Union.
In other words, all a Gantz candidacy as the head of centrist party would achieve is the electoral equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While he might steal away a couple of seats from the Likud, picking up the support of those slightly right-of-center voters who can no longer stand Netanyahu’s abuse of power and the soap opera antics of the Netanyahu family, a new center party would not threaten the prime minister’s position in any meaningful way.
If, on the other hand, Gantz were to run – either as an individual or as the head of a party running on a joint list with the Zionist Union – the situation changes. According to one report in the Hebrew press this weekend, Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbai showed Gantz a poll that predicted that if Gantz joined the Zionist Union as its candidate for defense minister in the next elections, the party would get close to winning 29 seats.
Now 29 seats is still no guarantee of forming a government, but it is an improvement on the 24 seats (itself an improvement on past years) the Zionist Union won in the 2015 elections, and it gives the Zionist Union a fighting chance of leading the next coalition.
But what does Gantz want to achieve? Does he want to actively try to bring down Netanyahu or does he just want to parachute into political life as Israel’s next defense minister, joining any coalition regardless of who heads it? So far, nobody – except for Gantz himself – has the answer. With less than a year to go to the next elections, Gantz has steadfastly refused to give any indication as to what he actually believes or what should be the direction the country needs to follow.
This is hardly the template of a would-be leader. It even makes Lipkin-Shahak’s call of restoring the smile on Israel’s face sound like a well thought-out political manifesto.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.