When the new Great White Hope of the Israeli opposition, Benny Gantz, delivered his first public speech last week, the press couldn’t contain its excitement. During the hours before he took to the podium to address a packed hall of supporters, all Hebrew broadcasters treated the event as momentous enough to warrant an hour-by-hour countdown.
The fervor was palpable. Prior to Gantz’s December 27 announcement of the formation of his party, Israel Resilience, the Left was on the verge of despair. Polls were showing the implosion of the once illustrious Labor Party – whose past prime ministers include David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – and the fizzling out of the elusive “center.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, on the other hand, was soaring in the surveys. Consensus had it that Likud would emerge victorious in the April 9 elections. To prevent the sure win from being too great – and to force Netanyahu to forge a coalition with others vying for prized portfolios – parties across the spectrum went into high gear, if not high anxiety.
When Gantz threw his hat into the ring, the mood instantly shifted. Here was a guy who might give Netanyahu a run for his money. At 59, the former IDF chief of staff is neither too young nor too old. He is also tall and handsome, with piercing blue eyes that, until four years ago, gloriously contrasted his dark green military uniform.
Another contribution to the fantasy that Gantz could be a contender to the proverbial throne was his silence. For two weeks, Gantz said nothing. Speculation about his political positions ran rampant, with Likud members attacking him as a leftist, and the anti-Netanyahu camp referring to him flatteringly as “center-left.” It was comic relief, if nothing else.
But the ploy worked. Blank slates provide disgruntled or confused voters a screen onto which they can project their hearts’ desires. Like Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie, Being There, Gantz was all things to all people, by virtue of his soft smile and sealed lips.
When he finally stood up to speak – conspicuously adjusting the microphone to suit his stature – the anticipation was so great, and the cheering so loud, that he could have been reading from a phone book and nobody would have noticed. This is not to say that the address was poor, however. On the contrary, whoever wrote it clearly knew how to craft a campaign message.
THE TROUBLE is that the message was Netanyahu’s. To be more precise, most of the promises Gantz made in his speech are already being fulfilled by the current prime minister.
Take the Nation-State Law, for instance, which Gantz told a group of Israeli Druze that he intends “to fix.” At the outset of his speech, Gantz basically reiterated the spirit and purpose of the law. “We are one nation,” he said. “We share one flag, one anthem and one army.”
Gantz then vowed to establish a “statesmanlike and powerful government that will act responsibly, firmly and decisively.” Sounds like what Israel has today, although Gantz claimed that the incumbent leadership “feed[s] anxieties to ensure its own survival.”
Gantz went on: “…[S]ecurity is created by deeds, not by words. In the harsh and violent Middle East surrounding us, there is no mercy for the weak. Only the strong survive.”
Netanyahu couldn’t have said it better himself.
Ditto for Gantz’s next assurances, directed at Israel’s key enemies; you know, the ones whom Netanyahu has been battling with aplomb for years.
“[Iranian] President Rouhani, I know very well that you are plotting to harm Israel. I will thwart your plots in the North, South and anywhere else in the Middle East,” Gantz said. “I will work against you in the international arena, in the economic arena and in the military arena. And if you do not understand the message in words, you will understand it with painful and precise blows.”
Gantz added, “To [Iranian Gen.] Qassem Suleimani and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah, I have a clear message: The regional rampage has ended. The Jewish people are entitled to live in peace and security, and not under constant threat. We do not threaten the sovereignty of Tehran or any other country, and we will not tolerate a threat to Israeli sovereignty. [Hamas leader] Ahmed Sinwar, I suggest you not test me again.”
He then proceeded to boast that he would allow humanitarian aid into Gaza – as though Netanyahu has not been doing so all along.
Gantz also declared that he would “strive for peace” and “not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change.” He failed to mention, of course, that Netanyahu has brought about more regional change than any other leader in Israel’s history.
It was especially amusing to hear Gantz subsequently assert that if peace isn’t possible at the moment, “[W]e will shape a new reality. Israel will be not be deprived of its status as a strong, Jewish and democratic state. We will strengthen the settlement blocs and the Golan Heights, from which we will never retreat. The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border. We will maintain security in the entire land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state. United Jerusalem will be built, will grow and will remain forever the capital of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel.”
Sounds more Netanyahu than Netanyahu.
When Gantz ended by quoting Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” the crowd went wild. Panels of anchors and pundits in the studios of Israel’s three “mainstream” TV stations could barely hide their enthusiasm. To hear any real analysis of Gantz’s performance, one was forced to turn to Israel’s only conservative outlet, Channel 20. There, at least, the irony of Gantz’s patriotic screed receiving accolades from analysts who slam Netanyahu for being too nationalistic was not lost.
TO BE FAIR, although Israel Resilience does not pose a numerical threat to Likud, Gantz’s popularity and potential ability to head a large opposition bloc cannot be dismissed. The general thinking is that if he plays his cards right, he could become the leader of the party that comes close to what Labor was in the not-so-distant past.
But Gantz screwed up his hand this week, by arousing the ire of the very media that had been rooting for him. The fury was sparked by the granting of his first major interview – the full text of which appears in today’s Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot – to Shlomo Artzi, a singer, and Hanoch Daum, a humorist. The fact that he did not opt to be grilled by “proper journalists” was too much for the press to bear.
In a scathing op-ed on the Mako website on Tuesday, veteran broadcast journalist Rina Matzliah actually accused Gantz of “not respecting the laws of democracy, one of whose foundational pillars is a strong media.”
As if this weren’t outrageous enough, Matzliah then attacked Netanyahu for “go[ing] over our heads to address the public directly,” even though “when something he says is even slightly newsworthy, we report on it without hesitation, [because] our commitment is not to the prime minister; [it] is to the public.” Priceless.
Further patting the members of her profession on the back – saying, “[W]e …have more integrity than the politicians we cover” – she lashed out at Gantz for exhibiting behavior “even worse than Netanyahu’s – because we know a thing or two about Netanyahu, but about Gantz we know almost nothing, other than that he is tall, knows how to get a stylist to dress him nicely – and knows how to read from a teleprompter.”
Matzliah’s piece was upstaged on Wednesday morning, however, when Yediot released a preview of Gantz’s interview with Artzi and Daum. In the excerpt, Gantz praised Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and suggested that lessons learned from that withdrawal would be applied to future such actions in Judea and Samaria.
The response from the Right was swift and justifiably stern. Disengagement was an unmitigated disaster. Removing any more Jews from their homes to make way for blood-thirsty Islamic terrorists and their missile-and-tunnel infrastructure would be tantamount to national suicide. No wonder the Palestinian Authority expressed satisfaction with Gantz’s remarks.
Fearing a sudden fall from Israeli grace, Gantz’s party immediately issued a denial.
“Under Gantz, no unilateral decisions will be made on settlement evacuation,” the Israeli Resilience statement read. “The issue discussed in the article of lessons learned from the disengagement had to do with the importance of preventing a schism between Israelis and maintaining non-negotiable security guarantees in any future initiatives.”
The good news is that Gantz has little to no chance of heading the next government. He couldn’t even sustain positive press coverage for a full week.
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