The Other Benjamin: Will Israeli politics be saved by one more general?

Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz is shining in the polls, but expectations that he will help unseat Netanyahu defy the laws of Israeli political gravity .

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz served as IDF chief of staff from February 14, 2011 to February 16, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz served as IDF chief of staff from February 14, 2011 to February 16, 2015
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Forced by a public outcry to establish a kingdom, the biblical Samuel soon produced the accidental candidate who would be king, “an excellent young man” who was “handsomer” and also “a head taller than any of the people.”
Like Saul, the unassuming cattle herder who led the Israelites in battle, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benjamin (Benny) Gantz is also a tall, handsome, humble, lifelong warrior raised among bulls and cows, in his case those of dairy farmer Nachum Gantz, who believed in what now is inscribed on his tombstone in Moshav Kfar Ahim: “Don’t be drawn by gold’s glitter / Look to the soil / For it stores blessing and happiness.”
Born and raised in that community of Holocaust survivors halfway between Gaza and Tel Aviv, Gantz-the-son joined the Paratroopers Brigade where he earned a reputation as a wise and enemy-less leader; much like King Saul, who was hard to find because he was “hiding among the baggage.”
A soft-spoken gentleman and officer, Gantz was in 2011 the hidden candidate for Chief of General Staff, appointed almost accidentally after the government backtracked from its appointment of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant due to a construction-violation complaint, and after another candidate, Gadi Eisenkot – eventually Gantz’s successor – stepped aside. Gantz’s four years as IDF chief of General Staff would never have happened but for that unusual turn of events.
Now polls suggest that the same Gantz who unexpectedly landed at the IDF’s helm will be the next general election’s dark horse; a blue-eyed, 1.92 meter-tall Benjamin whose entry into the political fray will, one way or another, end the premiership and era of the original Benjamin, Netanyahu.
It won’t.
The polls are consistent. A Channel 10 poll in October gave Gantz 13 Knesset seats, second only to Likud’s 29. Gantz, according to that poll, would siphon votes from practically all parties except the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs.
By November Gantz’s theoretical yield, according to the same pollsters, climbed further, to 15 seats, while another poll, by Mina Zemach and Mano Geva, indicated that if led by Gantz the Zionist Union’s forecast 12 seats would soar to 24, only two fewer than that poll’s prediction for the Likud.
Gantz has yet to formally pick up the gauntlet, but he has already assembled a list of 130 supporters with which he can legally register a new political party. He has also chosen a name for the party, although it remains a secret, as do the 130 on the list.
What Gantz brings is clear: height like Abraham Lincoln’s, patriotism like John McCain’s, looks like Paul Newman’s, and innocence like Jimmy Carter’s when he succeeded Gerald Ford. The problems lie in what he does not bring.
There is no arguing that Gantz was a brave combat officer, who at 21 already took part in a raid on an Arab Liberation Front camp deep in Lebanon.
Even more sacrificially, when the First Lebanon War’s outbreak caught him in the US training with the Green Berets, Gantz returned home and demanded to be sent to the front, a request that was duly heeded, and landed him in the assault on Beirut ahead of some 200 troops.
Gantz’s Zionist DNA is equally unimpeachable. He is the son of Hungarian-born Malka, a Bergen-Belsen survivor who met her Romanian-born husband on an illegal immigration boat.
In 1991, Gantz picked up in Africa from where his parents left off between Europe and Asia, where British vessels forcibly
rerouted their vessel from Haifa to Cyprus. As commander of the ground forces that secured Ethiopian Jewry’s airlift, Gantz was in the thick of the spectacle that his troops later said inspired them as a reenactment of the Exodus.
A quarter-century later Gantz still said “whenever I see Ethiopian-born soldiers I am moved,” recalling a ceremony for outstanding soldiers where an awardee comforted her mother, mentioning the two children she lost en route to the Promised Land. “It was impossible not to cry,” said the general.
Beyond such genuine humanity, Gantz’s popularity is also helped by his social skills.
Amicable by character, Gantz harmonized with the equally tall and quiet Moshe Ya’alon, who became defense minister shortly after Gantz’s appointment by the previous defense minister, Ehud Barak, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The IDF thus got some much-needed industrial calm, following the turbulent relations between Barak and Gantz’s predecessor, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi.
“We trusted each other,” said Ya’alon of Gantz. “We didn’t quarrel over credit or public status, and we worked in full cooperation,” wrote the former defense minister in his recent Hebrew book, “The Longer Shorter Way.”
HAVING commanded along the decades the Paratroopers Brigade, the Liaison Unit to Lebanon, the Northern Command, the Ground Forces, and having also served as military attaché in Washington – Gantz obtained a broad view of Israel’s strategic situation and tools, including a thorough acquaintance with the air force acquired as commander of its commando unit Shaldag (Pelican.)
Gantz indeed left his imprint in multiple spheres.
Fiscally, he reprioritized combat resources, replacing veteran armored units with new, lighter combat formations.
Organizationally, Gantz built and deployed the Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, and he created a super-regional division designed to deploy at short notice in any of the three regional commands.
Strategically, Gantz created the Depth Command which plans long-distance fighting – an undeclared, but obvious, reference to Iran – as opposed to the three regional commands which deal with Israel’s immediate borders.
Defensively, faced with civil war in Syria, Gantz created the precedent whereby any fire from Syria into Israel is met with immediate retaliation, a policy displayed forcefully in spring 2014, when the IDF attacked nine Syrian Army targets and killed ten Syrian soldiers, after a missile fired from Syria killed one Israeli worker and injured three while renovating the Golan’s border fence.
Offensively, however, Gantz’s record was ambiguous.
On the one hand, he oversaw successful raids like the interception of KLOS C, a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship laden with arms that was heading to Gaza from Bander-Abbas, Iran, when IDF naval commandos seized it by the Sudanese-Eritrean border, 1,500 kilometers away from Israeli shores.
On the other hand, the skirmishes with Gaza that – from the public’s viewpoint – dominated Gantz’s four-year term were militarily inconclusive and politically anticlimactic.
Two relatively brief rounds of violence in 2012 involved the targeted killings of two central terror leaders; more than 300 rockets fired into Israel; and the deaths of six Israelis by rocket fire and some 200 Gazans in IAF raids.
The fragile quiet that followed lasted through summer 2014, when Operation Protective Edge’s 50-day confrontation produced a tense ceasefire that cost 73 Israeli and more than 2,000 Gazan lives.
On the plus side, Gantz’s IDF fended off rocket barrages on Israeli cities and missiles fired at Israeli tanks, by efficient activation of Israeli-made technologies. Tactically, combined artillery salvos, naval barrages, and fighter-jet attacks followed by infantry, armor and commando incursions aided by precise intelligence – dealt Hamas harsh blows that pretty much silenced it for more than three years.
On the minus side, Hamas survived the war. Though this might have been Netanyahu’s intention, preferring that Hamas rule Gaza rather than Mahmoud Abbas, it still left Gantz a victor by point-decision rather than by a knockout, making some argue he displayed a lack of military imagination.
For Gantz, the politician, this might prove a liability. Fairly or not, he did not emerge from Gaza as celebrated as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon emerged, respectively, from the battlefields of 1956, 1967, and 1973.
Having said this, Gantz’s political drawbacks transcend his military record, and in fact say a lot more about the Israeli electorate than they do about the retired general.
CURIOUSLY, Gantz is starring in polls despite having never said anything substantial about Israel’s political dilemmas.
Politely refusing political interviews, Gantz cleverly limits his public exposure to non-contentious settings in which he makes non-provocative statements like “security is not just a strong army, but also a prospering economy, a cohesive society, and a government with a service ethos,” as he said in a recent speech during a Ben-Gurion Foundation awards ceremony; or “my father once told me when we sat on a haystack behind our house ‘if we, the farming population, won’t go to defense, who will?’” as he reminisced in a televised conversation about the Binding of Isaac with Judaic scholar Dov Elboim.
The result of this clever media policy is that no one knows Gantz’s opinions about anything, not even the Arab-Israeli conflict. Presumably, having been raised by a Labor-affiliated father, his leanings are center-left.
Reportedly, Gantz was involved behind the scenes with a recently published Institute for National Security Studies paper that recommends Israel seek separation from the Palestinians, cease to build beyond the West Bank’s anti-terror fence, and retain the Jordan Valley as its eastern military buffer. Gantz, however, never confirmed his involvement in this mildly dovish document’s composition.
Even more mysterious are Gantz’s views on domestic issues like social spending, housing costs or civil marriages. Hopefully, Gantz’s attendance of a religious elementary school and his upbringing in a socially sensitive milieu equip him to dialogue with all sides of Israel’s social debates and religious rifts.
Such hopes may or may not be vindicated, but for now Benny Gantz’s widely expected entry into Israeli politics seems woefully devoid of a gospel, and represents no novel idea, alliance, or program. Yet even if he does later produce them, Gantz is in no position to redraw the political map by shifting votes across the right-left divide. Instead, he is bound to join the scramble for the centrist electorate.
Repulsed by extremism, corruption, and social grandstanding, some 20% of Israeli voters have backed over the past four decades a succession of meteoric political formations, from Dash (1977) to Kulanu (2015). Most were centrist, some took several cabinet positions, and none changed Israel’s course.
Some of those meteors were led by retired generals such as Yigael Yadin (1977), Rafael Eitan (1992), or Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (1999). All were political failures.
OF THE 19 IDF chiefs of staff before Gantz, 10 became ministers and two – Rabin and Ehud Barak – became prime ministers. A third prime minister, Ariel Sharon, never became Chief of Staff but his political career was also fueled by his military record.
However, Rabin first reached the premiership not through a general election, but after the Labor Party chose him to succeed the resigning Golda Meir. His electoral success, and political maturation, would take another 18 years to arrive. Sharon’s would take 27. Barak reached the helm faster, but after having been a minister and head of the opposition, and even so his premiership crashed almost at takeoff.
If, as opposed to these predecessors, Gantz creates his own party, the analogy to his effort would be Lt.-Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s bid, launched in 1998, to unseat Netanyahu.
Lipkin-Shahak, also a handsome paratrooper and accomplished general, ended up part of a six-member faction, serving as minister of transport in Ehud Barak’s short-lived government before leaving the Knesset two years after entering it. The following decade Lipkin-Shahak passed away of cancer, at 68.
Six years later, and 20 since that handsome paratrooper set out to replace him, Netanyahu is still there.