On December 27, 2018, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz announced officially that he was entering politics. By Election Day on April 9, Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party had joined two other parties – Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – and created a centrist political monolith named Blue and White. The party won 35 seats.
In the months following the election Israel entered a political spiral. A second election was held on September 17, and Blue and White won 33 seats. In election No. 3, on March 2, 2020, the party rose back to 35.
But then, with the COVID-19 pandemic creating an emergency situation, the party imploded. Gantz decided to join a Netanyahu-led government, which formed on May 17. Yesh Atid and Telem broke away from the party, leaving it at 15 seats; and many Israelis thought that the decision was the end of Gantz’s short political career. Benjamin Netanyahu would chew him up and spit him out, they believed. The former general proved a political novice.
They were not wrong. The Netanyahu-Gantz government collapsed seven months later after it failed to pass a national budget. Many believed that Gantz would quickly become a brief episode in Israeli political history.
But Gantz ran again. In election No. 4, on March 23, 2021, he managed to hold on to a respectable eight seats, and became defense minister. In election No. 5, on November 1, 2022, after merging with Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot to form National Unity, Gantz rose to 12 seats.
Then, in seven straight polls last month, Gantz leaped to an average of 27.5 seats and passed Netanyahu in questions about compatibility to lead the country. While far from predicting any concrete results, the consistent polls suggest that, for the first time since Blue and White imploded almost exactly three years ago, Gantz is reemerging as a serious threat to Netanyahu.
Gantz speaks slowly, somewhat monotonously. He stumbles a few times in nearly every speech. He seems sleepy at times. He is neither a brilliant policy-maker nor a political mastermind. Adjectives or adverbs that come to mind when thinking about Gantz include the words “slow,” “plodding,” “dogged,” “consistent” and “boring.”
What is it about the ex-chief of staff that continues to hold sway over hundreds of thousands of Israelis? What caused the explosive rise in popularity? And on the other hand, do the poll numbers reflect a real trend, or are they a bubble that will pop sooner or later?
Gantz's calls for unity seemed the safer option to anti-government protesters
DR. MENACHEM LAZAR, head of the Panels Politics polling firm and Maariv’s chief pollster, identifies March 26 as the tipping point.
Yesh Atid was the main beneficiary of the mass protests that began after the government first announced its planned judicial reforms, on January 4. Polls consistently showed the bloc of parties that make up the coalition, and the Likud in particular, losing ground, and Yesh Atid growing. National Unity remained near its current size, Lazar explains.
But then, on the night of March 26, spontaneous protests broke out after Netanyahu announced that he had decided to remove Defense Minister Yoav Gallant from his position, after Gallant a night earlier warned about the damage of the social upheaval to the country’s national security.
From then on, Yesh Atid sank in poll after poll, the Likud continued its downward trend, but Gantz shot up. Why?
“The feeling among Israelis that night was that something had broken,” Lazar explains. Tens of thousands of Israelis felt that a redline had been crossed, and the feeling also had a tinge of panic – threats to national security are something that many Israelis do not take lightly, Lazar adds.
“Lapid is the protester, the fighter, which works well, but not when it seems like the entire package is falling apart,” he says. Gantz’s moderate rhetoric, his repeated calls for consensus and unity, suddenly seemed like a safer option.
Gantz's quiet demeanor draws voters
Moshe Klughaft, international strategic adviser and former Israeli prime ministerial adviser, agrees with Lazar.
“Gantz struck the chord of the need for unity in the nation,” Klughaft says, but argues that there is something far deeper: “Gantz struck a chord of boredom. He does not create drama or crises, does not boycott the [annual Independence Day] Torch Ceremony and does not yell at rallies, he does not support Netanyahu but also does not curse Netanyahu.
“Gantz represents at the moment a shimmer of longing for the quiet days that used to be. He is a Fata Morgana in the desert – it does not exist, but is comforting,” he adds.
According to veteran MK and former housing minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of National Unity, there are other reasons for Gantz’s rise – not just the Gallant saga and National Unity’s consistent call for dialogue.
Elkin argues that many people who voted for the current coalition parties are disappointed with the government’s performance in matters that it promised to improve, such as fighting terrorism, the high cost of living and internal security. In addition, some Likud voters feel that Netanyahu is not in full control of the government, and that the haredi parties, on one hand, and the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionist Party, on the other, have too much control.
Another example is the government’s performance on issues relating to aliyah, Elkin adds. There are many right-wing olim who voted for the current government but are disappointed as well. This was on display at the beginning of the Knesset’s summer session this week, when the Knesset Aliyah and Immigration Committee held a number of important discussions – about housing for new immigrants, the government’s decision to cease a fast-track aliyah program from Russia, a crisis in availability of Hebrew-language schools (ulpan) – that no MKs from the coalition attended, Elkin says.
But no matter the reason for Gantz’s rise in the polls, Klughaft’s “Fata Morgana” comment above raises the question: Is Gantz’s newfound popularity just a mirage? Is his ascent real, and if so – is it sustainable?
Klughaft believes that if the government collapses and an election is held in the near future, his numbers may remain high, but in the longer term the numbers have little meaning.
“Many more forces will rise in the opposition’s political system. We see that the system is going in a very active direction, as opposed to the sleepy Left that we saw in the past. This will influence the entire political makeup down the road,” Klughaft says.
Yoaz Hendel, former MK and communications minister, agrees, arguing that polls are pretty much worthless when they are based on the political makeup of the previous election. The only trend that does matter, Hendel says, is the movement away from the Netanyahu bloc. The reason for this, according to Hendel, is not the judicial reform – it is an “awakening” from the “smokescreen” of a “fully right-wing government.”
The Netanyahu bloc sold false currency to the public during last year’s election campaign, he says. For example, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir “told a story that someone who holds signs against terrorists knows how to fight terrorism.” This was a “bubble that popped easily,” Hendel adds.
Hendel has been mentioned as a potential leader of a new liberal right-wing party that could pull seats away from both Netanyahu and Gantz. One of Lazar’s polls showed such a party led by Hendel receiving six seats. Both Hendel and Lazar believe that there is a large electoral base currently supporting National Unity, that identifies as right-wing, but not “decisively Right,” Lazar says. Hendel believes that this is a party that could include both religious Zionists and secular right-wingers.
But, party configurations aside, Hendel and Lazar both agree that what matters even more – and where the numbers do say something – is the question about which leader is most suitable to serve as prime minister.
This was Netanyahu’s big advantage over the years, Lazar explains. Even when the Likud was not as large as it is today, Netanyahu consistently dominated the question of suitability to serve as prime minister, with large margins. But in the past month Gantz has passed Netanyahu – this is equivalent to a win on Bibi’s home turf, Lazar says.
Polls can be notoriously misleading, Lazar says. In recent years, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party polled at over 20 mandates at one point, and Sa’ar’s New Hope started out at between 14-17 seats. Neither won more than seven.
But polls do have an effect, he says. He compares them to approval ratings in the US, especially the head-to-head suitability for prime minister questions. If, in the US, one rates a president – in Israel one rates a party, Lazar explains. It reflects a sentiment about what the government is doing, he says.
If so, the current sentiment is unmistakable – the government’s approval rating is trending down, Lapid’s militant rhetoric is trending down, and Gantz’s moderateness is trending way up.