Can Benny Gantz become the country’s leader?

An officer and a gentleman: Just like Netanyahu once did, Israelis are taking a shine to Benny Gantz.

BENNY GANTZ listens to the cheers of the crowd gathered Tuesday night in Tel Aviv to hear his inaugural address.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
BENNY GANTZ listens to the cheers of the crowd gathered Tuesday night in Tel Aviv to hear his inaugural address.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
History, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on February 14, 2011, at the swearing-in ceremony for his new chief of staff, Benny Gantz, “is dynamic.”
So, too, are political relationships.
Considering all the mud and dirt already being slung in this political season, one can only look at photos from that swearing-in ceremony and rub the eyes – as one does looking at the photo album of a family in happy days before an ugly divorce – and wonder where those halcyon days went.
There in the middle is Gantz, standing tall with arms crossed below his hips, a satisfied quarter-smile on his face. To his right is the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, reaching up to place a new rank on Gantz’s shoulder, and to Gantz’s left is Netanyahu, doing the same on the other shoulder.
In that picture they all look content, comfortable, collegial. Ah, where did those days go?
“Benny, today you are taking on the command of the IDF, you have all the qualities to succeed in this important mission,” Netanyahu said, proceeding to spell out what he said was Gantz’s “special way,” a combination of “quiet determination, calm and pleasant ways” that will “ensure continuity and stability.”
With these words, the prime minister could have written Gantz’s campaign jingle.
He concluded his short remarks by addressing Gantz’s family history, which Netanyahu said was the “life story of our people.”
“Your mother, Malka – of blessed memory – was in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and on the day of the liberation of the death camp weighed 28 kilograms.... I am convinced that she certainly dreamed of one thing – she dreamed about a piece of bread, about the most simple things of existence. I imagine that she could not have dreamed that in another 66 years her son, who would be born in the free state of the Jewish people, would be the chief of staff in the Jewish state.
“She perhaps did not dream this, but this dream is being realized here today before our eyes, and this is the reality of our lives,” he continued. “This is also the great imperative now before you, Benny. And I know – from your knowledge of the heritage of our people, its history, its unique experience in our generation and in the generation of our parents, [the experience of] you and your family – I know that this imperative will guide you in your actions.”
On Tuesday night, at the glitzy, rap-tune jingled, confetti-strewn American-style rollout of his new Israel Resilience Party and his campaign to unseat the man who pinned the army’s highest rank on his shoulder just eight years ago, Gantz said it was exactly that imperative that was guiding him.
“I am here tonight because, except for my family, there is nothing more precious to me in the world than the State of Israel,” he began.
“I was born in an immigrant moshav called Kfar Ahim. My mother, Malka Gantz, and my father, Nahum Gantz, of blessed memory, were Holocaust survivors who swore ‘Never again.’ In Kfar Ahim I grew up and was educated. There I plowed the fields – first with a horse, then a tractor. There I prayed in the synagogue, and from there I went to the induction center on the day I was drafted into the IDF.”
The rest is history, a particularly dynamic one. And so far – at least from Gantz’s perspective – that dynamic this election season has been positive. After months of benefiting from not opening his mouth, and allowing the public to see in him whatever they wanted, his party’s opening event on Tuesday evening – when he actually did deliver a speech – went well.
He waded like a conquering Caesar into a crowd of cheering supporters at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds at 7:55 p.m. just five minutes before the start of the nation’s live television news broadcasts which covered his maiden speech extensively. On his way to the central stage he slapped hands, shared hugs, pointed to familiar faces, smiled for selfies. Here was a man who had prepared himself for this well-choreographed moment.
And he delivered his maiden speech well. No, he may not have the oratorical skills of a Barack Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu, but he showed he could deliver a strong speech without stumbling, that he could read seamlessly from a teleprompter and turn a good phrase.
“A strong government governs in order to unite, and doesn’t divide in order to rule,” he said in a swipe at what many view as Netanyahu’s divisiveness.
What was noticeable in the address was a toning down of the meanness, of the nastiness, that the country has become accustomed to in political speeches of this nature. True, he pricked Netanyahu – though without mentioning him by name – for the corruption scandals bedeviling him and a penchant for the “good life.”
“The current regime encourages incitement, subversion and hatred,” he said. “The basic values of Israeli statehood have been exchanged for the mannerisms of a French royal house.”
But even this criticism did not drip of the same venom of the anti-Netanyahu tirades of a Tzipi Livni or an Ehud Barak.
During the 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.”
It’s easy, of course, to make that sort of pledge at the outset of a campaign; much more difficult to uphold it during the heat of the battle. But even the pledge itself is refreshing.
AND IT is, perhaps, that refreshing aspect of Gantz’s personality that has resonated with the public, a public that knows only his personality, not his policies, since Gantz’s stands on the issues remain – even after his speech – largely a mystery.
With Gantz short on giving the public policy specifics, the support he has garnered in the polls so far must be seen as a vote of confidence in Gantz the person, because no one knows anything about Gantz the politician.
And Gantz the person resonates with the public, with polls consistently showing him winning 15 seats before he opened his mouth, and climbing to 19 to 24 seats even after he did, numbers that pose a significant threat to the once seemingly unbeatable Netanyahu.
This says more about the mood in Israel – and the creeping “Bibi fatigue” born of overfamiliarity with the prime minister and the constant drumbeat of scandals involving him, his family and his inner circle – than about Gantz.
Even after his maiden address, the country still knows very little about where he stands on the major issues.
He wants peace – wonderful. He wants an agreement with the Palestinians based on retaining the major settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and security control over the territories – good luck with that. He wants a lower cost of living and better healthcare and clean government – who doesn’t?
The Israeli public is neither stupid nor naive, so he is not doing as well as he is in the polls as a result of these positions, which are basically slogans. He is doing well because of who he is – because of his security background coupled with his style, or, as Netanyahu put it during that swearing-in ceremony all those years ago, his “special” combination of “quiet determination, calm and pleasant ways.”
So far, this election campaign is one of personalities, not ideological differences. There is no huge ideological gap that led Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to ditch Bayit Yehudi and form a new right-wing party – rather, there was personal ambition, and Bennett and Shaked’s realization that they could never rise to the top of the political mountain with a midsized, religious party as their vehicle. They have ambitions to travel a long distance, and understand they cannot do that in a Volkswagen Beetle of a political party.
On the Center-Left, as well, there are no major ideological rifts separating Labor from Yesh Atid and even from what we know of Israel Resilience. It is not a matter of ideology preventing those parties from uniting into one party, but rather one of personalities – who will be No. 1.
And in an election dominated by personalities, not by ideologies, Gantz has a head start, because the country seems to like his personality.
Gantz has been on the country’s radar screen for years, and has come across as a straight shooter, a mensch. The nation – which in any case has a weakness for chiefs of staff, largely because it entrust its sons and daughters in their care and wants and needs to believe that they are worth its trust – likes the quiet, determined strength that he exudes.
They like his personality. At least for now.