Politics: The man who could unseat Netanyahu?

MKs say former chief of staff Benny Gantz does not have the elbows for politics, but that’s why he is so sought after.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most common question asked of Israeli political analysts by audiences in America is about who could come after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assuming he ever leaves his job.
The usual response is a joke: Netanyahu. Yair Netanyahu is only 25, but in the Middle East, King Bibi passing on his mantle to the next generation would certainly not be unprecedented.
But what if the successor to Benjamin Netanyahu is not a Netanyahu but a Benjamin? That scenario of former IDF chief of staff Benjamin “Benny” Gantz becoming the main alternative candidate to Netanyahu in the next election becomes more plausible as time passes.
The reason that time is of the essence is that Gantz is currently prohibited by law from running, due to a three-year cooling-off period for former generals and heads of security and intelligence agencies.
The so-called Halutz Law, named after former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, was passed in 2007 in an effort to prevent Halutz and his successors at the helm of the IDF from entering politics. Not coincidentally, the law was sponsored by Netanyahu’s political ally Yuval Steinitz.
The impact of the law has been that potential political opponents of Netanyahu have either entered business, made millions and lost interest in politics, or faced criminal investigations that have preempted their prospective political careers.
Former generals deeply resent the law. Gantz completed his term as chief of staff in February 2015, which will keep him on the sidelines until at least February 2018, and possibly November 2018, depending on how the law is interpreted.
While that currently sounds far away, Netanyahu does not appear to be in a hurry to initiate an election. His coalition is stable and ideologically comfortable, he is about to pass a two-year-budget, and polls showing that Yesh Atid could win more votes than the Likud help Netanyahu keep his coalition partners and potential rebels in his own party in line.
There is also the matter of history, which can never be underestimated for the son of a historian.
Netanyahu is set to pass founding father David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving prime minister of the Jewish state on September 23, 2018, and that is undoubtedly a goal he is keeping in mind.
There is one time element working against Gantz, which is that the next leadership race in the Labor Party is set for next summer. But the race has already been delayed twice, and Labor chairman Isaac Herzog could very well get away with postponing it again.
Gantz does not like being typecast as left-wing. He has never revealed his political ideology, and in private conversations he does not refrain from praising Netanyahu.
Unlike fellow former IDF chiefs of staff Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, whose views on each side of the political map are well known, Gantz is an ideological free agent, which only increases his political value. He could lead a current party or a new one. Gantz, who served as deputy chief of staff before getting the IDF’s top job, could also take a party’s second slot.
Gantz is the only one of the three former IDF chiefs who has no strikes against him. No investigations, no enemies and no baggage.
He currently heads a cyber-technology firm called Fifth Dimension that is based in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli towers, while volunteering with multiple charities.
He is also involved in Pnima (Inward), a movement that aims to build a new vision for the state and appears to be an incubator for future leaders.
Through Pnima, Gantz has been introduced to elements in Israeli society that he otherwise may not have met, such as haredim (ultra-Orthodox), Israeli Arabs, and Beduin.
Born in 1959 and recruited to the IDF in 1977, Gantz served in the Paratroop Brigade and has commanded the elite IAF Shaldag commando unit, the Judea and Samaria Division’s Judea Brigade, the Liaison Unit with Lebanon, the Judea and Samaria Division, the Northern Command and the Ground Forces Command. As chief of staff, he is credited with running the army well in operations Pillar of Defense, Protective Edge, and Brother’s Keeper.
Gantz has also studied in the US and served two years as the IDF’s military attaché in Washington, where he built close ties with the top commanders of the US military that he utilized when he was chief of staff. Those close ties could also come in handy if he does make the jump into politics.
In private conversations, Gantz does not shy away from admitting that although the American-brokered deal with Iran could have been much better, the deal has helped Israel by pushing off the nuclearization of Iran.
In an October 2015 interview on Channel 10, Gantz said he did not want Israel to “constantly have to live by the sword.” He said Israel needed to make more of an effort to achieve peace in behalf of Israelis who risk their lives by serving in the IDF.
Gantz spoke in the interview about the need for national unity. When told he sounded like a politician, he said the current security situation pained him, and then left his options open.
“If I will be required, I will consider it,” he said regarding entering politics.
In June, Gantz spoke at an event at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba organized by the anti-Netanyahu organization Darkenu, which during the 2015 election was called V15 and worked to organize the grassroots in an effort to defeat the prime minister.
When a student asked why he had not yet entered politics, Gantz first joked by saying he was suffering from the flu and that it could take him “at least two years to recover.” But he then responded to the expectations placed on him by those who want Netanyahu replaced.
“I don’t see myself as a messiah of Israel, and I don’t think there aren’t good people in Israeli society,” Gantz said. “The political battlefield is very important. Key decisions about the country’s future are made there. There is no doubt that it has the most impact on Israeli society. I have not made a decision to enter politics. I have not made a decision to not enter politics. I know they are trying to color me in various colors, but I am sorry, no painter has hit the target.”
Gantz said Israel’s security does not belong to one end of the political map and is not more dear to one side or the other. He warned about dangers from extremists on the Right and accused them of trying to politicize the IDF in recent incidents, including the case of a soldier in Hebron who shot to death an allegedly neutralized Palestinian terrorist.
If Gantz decides to enter politics, he will have to overcome more than the technical, legal obstacles that are currently keeping him on the sidelines.
There are also the naysayers who believe he does not have the “elbows” needed to succeed in politics. “He won’t come to politics, because he’s not built for politics, and he knows it,” said one veteran MK.
“Being a general doesn’t make you a good politician. Most generals were poor politicians. Politics is a different kind of battle.”
Another MK questioned whether Gantz had the “will and hunger” necessary to succeed in politics.
However, the MK said Gantz succeeded as IDF chief specifically because he had cool-headedness and modesty, which have not been prototypical of his predecessors in the post.
That word “modesty” is repeatedly used to describe Gantz by those who know him. They said his modesty enabled him to stabilize the IDF General Staff following the Harpaz Affair after Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak tried unsuccessfully to appoint two other generals to the IDF’s top job.
Gantz’s associates said the tall, lanky general succeeded in the IDF despite lacking muscles, and he can succeed in the Knesset despite lacking elbows.
Netanyahu knows that every time the Likud has been defeated since 1974, the party that defeated it has been led by a former general, except the 2006 election, when Kadima was led by Ehud Olmert, who was overshadowed by his hospitalized predecessor, Ariel Sharon.
So can Israel go from Benjamin to Benjamin? Well, it is at least as likely as going from Netanyahu to Netanyahu.