Benny Gantz's missed opportunities

By adopting Netanyahu’s racist attitudes, Gantz is missing a much-needed chance to reshape the political landscape

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a faction meeting in the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a faction meeting in the Knesset
Benny Gantz should have accepted Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge to a television debate. Given the prime minister’s outstanding showmanship – there is nobody on the political scene who can surpass Netanyahu in terms of rhetorical ability – nobody would have expected Gantz to win.
Which means that even a mediocre performance on Gantz’s part could easily have been claimed a victory. More importantly, by following the Yitzhak Mordechai playbook of the 1999 election debate, the year when Netanyahu was turfed out of the premiership, Gantz could have persuaded those crucial voters wavering between reluctantly voting Likud, staying at home or voting Blue and White, that now is the time to put an end to Netanyahu holding the country hostage to his legal problems.
Like Gantz, Mordechai was a retired senior IDF commander not noted for his smooth talk or polished TV appearances. Nevertheless, he destroyed Netanyahu with one single withering put down: “Bibi, look me in the eyes” – when he accused Netanyahu of lying. And that is all Gantz needed to do in the debate as well.
The ammunition is there, supplied by Netanyahu himself. Back in 2008, when then-prime minister Ehud Olmert was being investigated (way before an indictment was brought against him), Netanyahu memorably called on him to stand down. “A prime minister who is neck-deep in investigations,” Netanyahu self-righteously intoned, “has no public or moral mandate to make crucial decisions.”
What was true in 2008 is even truer today, particularly for a prime minister more than neck-deep in investigations and actually about to stand trial on the serious charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
It was no coincidence that Netanyahu issued his challenge to a debate on the very day that the start of his court case was announced; Netanyahu was looking for anything which would distract attention from the fact that his corruption trial is scheduled to begin in a few weeks’ time.
Gantz doesn’t have to be a particularly proficient performer to repeatedly hammer home this single point in a TV debate: a prime minister who has been charged for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and who will be spending most of his day, every day, in court defending himself, cannot at the same time be trusted to run this country. Any fateful decision he makes will always be viewed in the light of the case being heard in the Jerusalem District Court.
The desperate attempts by those on the Right to draw some sort of equivalence between Netanyahu’s imminent court case and a police investigation into possible wrongdoing by the cybersecurity firm Fifth Dimension during a bidding process for a small software project are simply pathetic. While Netanyahu has been indicted on serious corruption charges, Gantz, who was the chairman of the now-bankrupt Fifth Dimension, is not even a suspect in an investigation that hasn’t yet started.
GANTZ HAD nothing to fear from a debate, and it would have also given him the platform to undo the key mistake of his current campaign: Blue and White’s legitimizing of the Likud’s racist campaign around a “Jewish majority” and talk of how a government “dependent on the Arabs” is “not legitimate.”
After the previous elections in September, when seeking the elusive 61 votes needed to form a coalition, Gantz held talks with Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, leading members of the Joint List. The talks ultimately went nowhere, but they highlighted the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens have a rightful role to play on the national political stage.
Sadly, this time around, Gantz has seemingly decided to discount Israel’s Arab voters. His insistence that the Joint List “won’t be a part of my government” and his initial full acceptance of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan (which includes a proposal to transfer Arab towns in Israel to the Palestinians) were no doubt aimed at the center-right voters he is looking to steal from the Likud, but by doing so, he alienated 20% of Israel’s population.
A television debate, in which Netanyahu would have unleashed his election slogan of “Gantz has no government without Tibi,” would have given Gantz the chance to show he is made of the same mettle as another former IDF chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin.
Rabin didn’t invite the Arab parties to join his government in 1992, because of the deep ideological differences between them and the Zionist Left, but he had no problem relying on a blocking majority that included opposition Arab MKs. Memorably, only a few days before he was murdered, Rabin clearly stated that the demand for a “Jewish majority” was racist.
Even without a TV debate, Gantz should make the same declaration, for two reasons.
First and most importantly, because it’s the right thing to do. Arab citizens are equal under the law, and their votes are just as valid as those of Jewish citizens. It’s painful to have to write in 2020 that the only majority in a democratic election that counts is the one that has the most votes in total.
Second, it’s politically expedient. If Blue and White is to have a chance of forming a government, it needs a high turnout in the Arab sector and an increase in the number of seats going to the Joint List. But if Arab voters think it makes no difference whether Netanyahu or Gantz is prime minister, they are more likely to stay at home come March 2.
By adopting Netanyahu’s racist attitudes, Gantz is missing a much-needed opportunity to reshape the political landscape.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.