Well, what did we learn from Benny Gantz’s first foray into the media over the weekend?
First of all, we learned that the head of the Israel Resilience Party has really excellent campaign advisers. Their strategy of initially insisting that Gantz maintain complete radio silence (the exception being his campaign launch speech at the end of last month) ensured they could lay down the ground rules for his first newspaper engagement.
And so, instead of a hard-hitting interview conducted by Yediot Aharonot’s senior political journalists, Israel’s best-selling paper had to settle for a magazine article with a singer and a comedian posing the questions. While both singer Shlomi Artzi and comedian Hanoch Daum have columns in Yediot’s weekend magazine, and both are top talents in their fields, neither is known for political acumen or skill in asking pointed questions. This interview did nothing to change their reputations in this regard.
A further low in Israeli journalism came with Daum’s bloodthirsty desire to find out “how many terrorists have you killed personally,” as if expecting Gantz to have kept score on his rifle butt. To his credit, Gantz refused to sink to Daum’s level, perhaps having taken to heart the criticism of his ill-judged and distasteful campaign video, which boasted of the number of Palestinian terrorists killed in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge when he was IDF chief of staff.
The second lesson learned from the interview is that Gantz, not surprisingly for a former military man, is a disciplined campaigner. He remained consistently on-message throughout the interview, saying nothing to alienate the center-right vote, one of his key targets. When he noted that “we need to find a way not to continue ruling over other people,” he was quick to reference Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech about the desire for two states, and steadfastly refused to outline any future territorial compromise he would consider.
Such is his concern for the center-right vote that when Yediot released highlights of the interview earlier last week, including a quote in which Gantz gave his backing for the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, his campaign was quick to issue a statement that “in a Gantz government, there will be no unilateral moves related to evacuating settlements.”
Which brings us to our third lesson. Although throughout the interview Gantz insisted he would beat Netanyahu at the polls and head the next government, it seems Gantz is actually planning his leadership bid for the election after this one.
His mantra that it’s unreasonable to expect a prime minister to continue leading the country while under indictment fails to answer the most basic question of this election campaign: If Netanyahu wins the April elections, will Gantz nevertheless join his government even if Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decides to indict the prime minister subject to a hearing?
On the assumption that the attorney-general announces this month he intends to indict Netanyahu, the electorate needs to know if this is Gantz’s redline for a possible partnership with Netanyahu. Or is the Israel Resilience leader prepared to join forces with an indicted prime minister during the long months of the hearing process and only insist he stand down if an indictment is finally issued?
Unlike Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and other politicians on the Center and Center-Left, who have clearly said Netanyahu should resign the minute an indictment is issued, before a hearing, Gantz steadfastly refused to make a similar statement. Which is what leads to the suspicion that Gantz, come April 10, will answer the phone should Netanyahu be the caller seeking to form the next government.
The one thing missing from Gantz’s CV as a potential prime minister is any political experience whatsoever. A spell as defense minister would definitely alter that. With his military experience and, according to the polls, position as the leader of the second-largest party in the Knesset, Gantz would be well within his rights to demand this portfolio from Netanyahu. And given Netanyahu’s reluctance to hand over senior cabinet positions to potential challengers to his leadership inside the Likud, this would work well too for the prime minister.
From that point on, it would be win-win for Gantz. If Netanyahu, following his hearing, is surprisingly not indicted, Gantz could continue gaining more experience as defense minister, keeping his profile high for whenever the next elections would take place. On the more likely scenario that Mandelblit follows through with an indictment at some point in the next 12 months, Gantz could then take the moral high ground and demand Netanyahu’s resignation, bolting the government and seeking to bring it down.
This would perfectly position Gantz for his real leadership bid. What we’re seeing now is a training exercise, with Gantz firing blanks. We’ll know if this campaign is for real only if Gantz clearly commits to not sitting with a prime minister who is under indictment. Any other statement is camouflage for Gantz’s true intentions.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.