Moral of Gantz story: Being a mensch will only get you so far

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: That public persona of being a good guy – an honest straight shooter – is what catapulted him just over two years ago to political prominence.

ALTERNATE PRIME MINISTER Benny Gantz – alone at the top of Blue and White. (photo credit: REUTERS/COLLAGE BY DANIEL FEIGEL)
ALTERNATE PRIME MINISTER Benny Gantz – alone at the top of Blue and White.
Two contradictory sayings came to mind Tuesday night when watching Blue and White Party chairman Benny Gantz deliver his “I will fight on” political speech to the country, as his party crumbled and one of his closest political allies, Avi Nissenkorn, defected to a new rival party.
The first saying was “nice guys finish last.” And the second was this George Eliot quote: “Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning; but give me the man who has the pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing.”
Regarding the first saying, few will argue that Gantz comes across as a nice guy. He’s soft-spoken, a bit shy, does not appear either mean or bitter. Rather, he seems decent.
And that decency, that public persona of being a good guy – an honest straight shooter – is what catapulted him just over two years ago to political prominence. Gantz’s great political leap was propelled by personality, not policies or ideas.
Think about it for a minute. Gantz finished his term as chief of staff in February 2015. In July of 2018, after an unsuccessful stint in the business world and before he even declared he would enter politics, a KAN News poll found that if he ran for the Knesset, he would win 12 seats.
Twelve seats, and this was before Gantz ever opened his mouth, before the public had any inkling on where he stood on the major issues – the Palestinians, Iran in Syria, the role of the judiciary, the economy, even what he thought of Benjamin Netanyahu.
And that was only the beginning. From that moment Gantz’s poll numbers only soared higher and higher until he established the Israel Resilience Party and then the Blue and White political alliance with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem some five months later.
One of the main explanations for this meteoric trajectory was that the public viewed him as a good, decent guy, at a time when it was overwhelmed by the constant drumbeat of scandals swirling around Netanyahu. The country was thirsting for someone they trusted, a mensch, and Gantz fit the bill. He had been on the nation’s radar screen for years as chief of staff, and the public both liked and trusted him.
In the early days of the 2019 campaign, Gantz declared, “I will not personally attack anyone, and I will refrain from any action that could harm or break up Israeli society, which is so dear to you and to me. I remember very well where I came from, and I understand where I am going.”
That type of rhetoric resonated and was refreshing at a time when personal attacks and the politics of division were all the rage. That he was unable to live up to the pledge of not personally attacking anyone is just the result of life in this country’s political lane.
During the April 2019 election campaign, Gantz’s handlers took great pains to keep his policy statements at a bare minimum. He barely interviewed, and did not reveal much in canned campaign speeches.
Why? Because the polls showed that people liked Gantz the person. So why gum up the works by having him open his mouth and articulate policies that would inevitably alienate at least some of the people?
With Gantz not providing the public with many policy specifics, the support for him in the first, second and even third elections over the last two years must be seen as a vote of confidence in Gantz the person. It can be viewed only in this manner, because almost nothing was known about Gantz the politician.
Things began to unravel when Gantz the politician – as opposed to Gantz the officer, and Gantz the gentleman – began to come out. What then became evident was that as a politician he was not especially astute. On the contrary, he was seen as a rather inept politician, a novice who had the metaphorical wool pulled over his eyes by a consummate politician – Netanyahu.
And in this trajectory he followed in the footsteps of other former generals and heads of the security services who shone while in uniform, but never mastered the fine art of politics.
Gantz rose spectacularly – he came within tantalizing reach of becoming prime minister – at a time when the country ceased being preoccupied with ideas or ideologies or policies, and more with personalities.
His equally spectacular fall is proof that a strong character and a sympathetic personality can only take you so far in Israeli politics.
ONLY 21 MONTHS ago, on election eve of April 9, Gantz was standing gleefully behind a podium at Expo Tel Aviv. Exit polls erroneously showed him eking out a slim win over Netanyahu, and he rushed out to declare victory.
“In elections there are losers, in elections there are winners, and we are the winners,” he said. “We are perhaps new [to politics], but we are not naive.”
After this victory speech, he joined his party’s “cockpit” – Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Ya’alon – for a group hug. One looks at that picture today with the sad feeling of looking at the happy wedding pictures of a couple that has since divorced.
Lapid and Ya'alon split from Gantz in May,  and Ashkenazi retired (temporarily) from politics this week.
Gantz’s ill-conceived speech that election night – prematurely claiming victory when there was none – was one side of the bookends to his political career.
The other bookend came in the speech he gave Tuesday night, as a party that once held 35 seats was hemorrhaging MKs and supporters, and as the polls were questioning whether it would even pass the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset next time. As on election eve in April 2019, Gantz again claimed a victory that simply wasn’t there.
“The bright spot that awaits all of us at the other end of this election season is that Netanyahu will finally release the country from his clutches and stop sacrificing Israel’s future for his own personal, legal and political future,” he said. “Blue and White made that breakthrough possible. Blue and White saved this country.”
Even as his party’s ship was sinking, Gantz still declared victory. “We knew how to save Israel from Netanyahu, and will know how to help it heal, and help steer it away from the turbulence to a safe harbor.”
Does anybody really believe it, that Blue and White “saved Israel?” Certainly not the Blue and White MKs abandoning the party at record pace, nor – if the polls are to be believed – the public. On Wednesday night, a day after Gantz’s speech, a Channel 12 poll gave his party four seats in the next elections, and a Channel 13 poll predicted five – down from the 33 seats it won just nine months ago.
Those numbers represent either an ungrateful nation that for some reason is unwilling to give Gantz credit for “saving the country,” or a belief that – perhaps – he didn’t really do what he claimed.
In autumn of 2018 Gantz burst onto the scene as Israel’s political savior; in the winter of 2020 he said he delivered the goods. The only problem: very few believe him.
Which is where that George Elliot quote comes into play: “Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning; but give me the man who has the pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing.”
Gantz is not a folding up shop, as others might have done, and that pluck is additional testament to the strength of his character as a person. But, as is now painfully evident for all to see, that is not nearly enough to survive and flourish in the jungle that this country calls politics.