How Benny Gantz is planning to become Israel's next prime minister

Gantz’s thinking is that if he can get somewhere in the low double digits, between 12 and 15 seats, he can be the dealmaker after the next election.

 Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Blue and White party meeting in the Knesset last month. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Blue and White party meeting in the Knesset last month.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Last Friday, MK Benny Gantz visited the Boaz Brothers restaurant in the Hatikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv. A few days earlier, the defense minister received a video from Ran and Nir Boaz, the twin brothers who run the shipudiya (skewer house) in the iconic working-class quarter. They said they admired Gantz and would be honored if he would come to eat at their restaurant.

In a video he later posted on Facebook, Gantz is seen walking into the restaurant, hugging Nir and Ran, taking selfies with the other customers, talking about the wonderful food and people he met, and then walking down some of the neighborhood’s nearby streets smiling, hugging and slapping high fives with random people.

It was an interesting visit. Hatikvah is not Gantz territory. In the last election in March 2021, for example, his Blue and White party received just a handful of votes at the polling stations in the neighborhood.

At the Shapira Community Center – one of the neighborhood’s main polling stations – Blue and White received a mere 3% of votes. Likud and Shas, on the other hand, received over 50%.

Gantz knows this. He knows that Hatikva is a Likud stronghold and that his voters are in the center of Tel Aviv as well as in some of the nearby towns like Herzliya – where he received 12% of the vote – or Ramat Hasharon, where he garnered a sizeable 14% of votes.

 Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 22, 2022. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 22, 2022. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Ulterior motives?

Which begs the question, why bother visiting the neighborhood if none of your voters are there? Why even invest the time? The answer is telling and can explain what Gantz’s strategy might be heading into the November election.

Looking back to last June when the so-called “Change Government” was founded, it was no secret that Gantz was not happy. Every photo of him in the Knesset or around the cabinet table showed him upset, looking resentful and somewhat demoralized.

The reason was simple. Blue and White received eight seats in the election in contrast to Naftali Bennett’s 7 (which fairly quickly became 6). How was it, Gantz wondered, that someone with two less seats than him was becoming prime minister? Considering that he had received thirty seats through three rounds of elections, it was quite the fall.

The frustration undermined the government’s ability to function. At one point, Bennett, then prime minister, asked journalists he met to pass on to Gantz that he had spoken of him in glowing terms. He was trying everything to create a semblance of a working relationship with his defense minister.

The tension continued to grow though. In March, Bennett prevented Gantz from traveling to Ramallah to attend a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah. Gantz was not happy.

A few weeks later, tension between the two again boiled over in the cabinet when Gantz yelled at Bennett for not sharing the credit when it came to the government’s achievements in the war on terror. Bennett replied that he consistently mentioned Gantz in Facebook posts.

 Israeli minister of Defense Benny Gantz gives a statement to the media at the IDF Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Israeli minister of Defense Benny Gantz gives a statement to the media at the IDF Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2022. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Since elections were called some ten days ago, Gantz has been working hard to break the image of the kvetchy defense minister. In recent weeks, he is all smiles and suddenly generous with his own gifts. On Tuesday, for example, Gantz hosted Bennett for a farewell meeting with the IDF General Staff at the Kirya and was full of compliments.

“I think that what was significant in the way you operated was that you looked responsibly at the needs of all citizens,” Gantz told Bennett in front of the IDF generals. “That was true also when it came to matters of security, regarding which you had a great depth of understanding.”

Fights about credit for Facebook posts? It was as if they never happened.

The same generosity was evident when Prime Minister Yair Lapid was installed as Israel’s prime minister. During the last year, it was no secret that these two former political partners did not get along. Gantz seemed like he was eternally bitter for Lapid’s decision not to enter the government in 2020 with Benjamin Netanyahu, only to come back a year later as the new government’s powerbroker.

But this time, Gantz was as gracious as could be. “Yair, I wish you great success,” Gantz tweeted last Thursday, sharing a photo of the two of them sharing a friendly moment. “We will continue to work together for the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli society as a whole.”

The graciousness did not go unnoticed and is being looked at within the political establishment as an attempt by Gantz to rebrand. He no longer wants to be seen as the bitter loser of the last government. He is now someone who knows how to be generous, to give compliments and to work as a team player.

DO THESE attributes sound familiar? They are exactly what Lapid became known for during the last election and in its aftermath when he gave Bennett the opportunity to serve as the first prime minister in the coalition, even though Yamina had a fraction of the seats won by Yesh Atid.

Gantz is playing the long game

Gantz is doing this because he has his eyes set on being prime minister after the next election. To get there, he knows that he needs to be seen as a benevolent leader and not one who is resentful. The visit to the Boaz Brothers restaurant in the Hatikvah neighborhood is part of this rebranding. Gantz is trying to turn himself into a man of the people. If that can help him get some votes also from known Likud strongholds, then why not try?

It is within this prism that we need to look at the talks that are taking place right now between Blue and White and Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s New Hope party. According to polls, Saar is unlikely to cross the threshold on his own and has tasked party member UK Zeev Elkin with running the negotiations with Blue and White to see if they can find a way to merge their lists.

On Gantz’s behalf, the person running the negotiations is his trusted adviser and current chief of staff in the Defense Ministry, Maayan Israeli.

A discreet former junior officer in the IDF’s foreign relations department, Israeli got to know Gantz after he left the military when she helped organize speaking events for him overseas. Ever since then, they have worked closely together and Israeli was one of the architects behind the establishment of Blue and White, the failed unity government with Netanyahu in 2020 and the new shift in political strategy. Israeli is also close to the Americans – Ambassador Tom Nides recently took her for a week to Washington to meet top officials in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon – and she has Gantz’s complete trust to help steer Blue and White in the right direction.

The merger with New Hope is viewed in Blue and White as strategic. It will help rebrand Gantz as a center and even center-right leader and give him more of a chance to pull votes away from Likud supporters who still vote Right but are fed up with the worshipping that has overtaken the party for Netanyahu.

Gantz’s thinking is that if he can get somewhere in the low double digits, between 12 and 15 seats, he can be the dealmaker after the next election.

The first option is that Netanyahu receives the coveted 61 seats with just the Likud, the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Religious Zionist party and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina, assuming she runs in the election and crosses the threshold. In that case, Netanyahu will establish a narrow right-wing government on his own and will not need Gantz.

On the other hand, what happens if Netanyahu fails to get 61 seats? And what if, on the other side, Lapid also doesn’t have the number needed for a coalition?

Both sides

Then, Gantz can play both sides against one another. On the one hand, he can tell the Israel electorate that by joining Netanyahu, he is preventing a 6th election – like Bennett did when joining Lapid – and that he will be able to prevent people like MK Itamar Ben-Gvir from becoming a minister in the cabinet. In this case, Gantz would be able to justify the decision to again join Netanyahu and he would also be able to demand and receive the right to go first in a prime ministerial rotation.

On the other side, Lapid won’t have much of a choice but to offer the same. Knowing that Gantz has a viable option with Netanyahu, he will need to offer him to also serve as the first prime minister in a rotation, even if Yesh Atid will have more seats than Blue and White, similar to what he did last year with Bennett.

Basically, if no side has a clear victory, Gantz hopes he can squeeze out the premiership, either from Lapid or from Netanyahu.

This is why Gantz cannot be ruled out. By 2023, he might end up being Israel’s 15th prime minister.