Does Gantz Have a Chance? Yes!
Who is Benny Gantz? How has this man, who has been so reticent about his political positions, managed to garner such widespread support? The polls are already showing that he and Binyomin Netanyahu are both favored for the office of prime minister by equal percentages of the Israeli public, and that if his party, Chosen L’Yisrael, merges with Yesh Atid, with Gantz himself leading the united party, it would catch up to Likud or perhaps even surpass it. And how is the Israeli prime minister chosen? Read on for the details…
Last Tuesday, an entire country waited with bated breath for one person to speak.
True, it was a man with a very impressive record. He was the chief of staff of the IDF from February 2011 through February 2015, and he is both talented and highly respected. Nevertheless, there was something unusual about the anticipation for his speech. Everyone was waiting for him to say something, to explain where he stands: Is he on the right or the left? Is he a capitalist or a socialist? What are his economic, political, and social positions?
Benny Gantz is an enigma. What is particularly interesting is that even after his speech, which was extremely long, he remained an enigma. Ask anyone who listened to the speech if they now understand his views, and they will admit that they don’t. But what is most incredible about that is that Benny Gantz is now the only person on the political map who seems to have a chance of unseating Binyomin Netanyahu. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but Gantz seems to be the only realistic challenger. The other contenders – Avi Gabbay, Yair Lapid, and perhaps a few other megalomaniacs – do not even come close to Netanyahu’s standing in the polls.
Since his departure from the military, Gantz has held several other positions, but none of major significance. Still, the aura of his military career has clung to him. He announced his entry into the political scene at the very end of 2018. His party was named “Chosein L’Yisroel” (the Israel Resilience Party), and his campaign slogan, “The state above all,” may have been drawn from an American president’s proclamation, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
This was all completely expected. There had been endless talk about the possibility, and everyone waited to see if Gantz would jump into the murky waters of Israeli politics – and then he did. Since he entered the race, though, he has maintained a policy of silence. He hasn’t uttered a word about his views, he hasn’t issued a response to anything, and he hasn’t made any appearances. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t know how to speak. Gantz has several academic degrees, including one from National Defense University in Washington, DC. Senior officials in the IDF generally go through courses of study during their military service. Sometimes it is in order to enrich their education; at other times, it is simply a bonus before their retirement. He also took a course for the Special Forces of the American army in North Carolina. It is said that he is one of only a few individuals outside the United States (and certainly in Israel) who trained in the survival course of the elite Green Beret unit of the American army. He is certainly an intelligent person who could have had plenty to say. But he chose to remain silent…
It appears that Gantz’s advisors had instructed him to maintain his silence – and their strategy has clearly paid off. Despite his reticence – or, many claim, perhaps even because of it – he has gained enormous popularity. His political strength seems to be rising in every poll. At this time, not only has he risen above most of the parties on the left, but his is the only party that is beginning to pose a threat to the Likud – and thus to Netanyahu.
The Israeli System
In order to understand the nature of Gantz’s threat to Netanyahu, it is important to be aware of the process by which a prime minister is elected in Israel. The Israeli public does not vote directly for a prime minister. Instead, they vote for political parties. There were a few elections in the past when voters submitted two ballots, one for their party of choice and the other for their chosen candidate for prime minister. That is still the way the municipal elections are handled: Every voter inserts a ballot with the name of his chosen mayoral candidate in one envelope, and another ballot, generally in a different color, with the name of his party of choice in another envelope.
The dual ballot system was excellent for the chareidi parties, especially the Shas party. This system made it possible for them to advise voters to support their chosen candidate for prime minister while still voting for a chareidi party for the Knesset. The chareidim were always in favor of this system. History has shown that their power was greater during the election campaigns when the ballots were separated.
Today, however, this system no longer exists. Instead, the citizens of Israel vote only for their parties. That means that an ardent supporter of Netanyahu would feel compelled to vote for the Likud party. If he submits a vote for a different party, even if it belongs to the right-wing bloc, he will have no guarantee that Netanyahu will be elected. For this reason, Shas and UTJ have already announced that they will support Netanyahu for the office of prime minister. This way, the typical right-wing voter who has sympathies for Shas (and there are many such people) or United Torah Judaism (of which there are some) can rest assured that a vote for one of those parties is also a vote for Netanyahu.
How does this work? It is simple: After the election, the president of the state will assign one of the party leaders to try to put together a government. If he succeeds, then his government will be in power. If he fails, he will be given another period of time to make a second attempt. If he fails once again, the president will select a different candidate – in other words, the leader of a different party – to take his place. History has shown that the candidate who is chosen to put together a coalition generally succeeds. There was only one person who failed in this task: Tzipi Livni. In that particular election, her party had received one more mandate than the Likud party. She refused to comply with the Shas party’s demands, and therefore she was unable to assemble a majority in the Knesset. The opportunity was then passed to Netanyahu, who managed with ease to put together a new government.
The President Meets with the Party Leaders
Ostensibly, after an election, the president should assign the task of putting together a new government to the leader of the party with the greatest number of mandates. That was always the accepted protocol, and it will undoubtedly remain that way. Before making his selection, the president first consults with the leaders of the parties that were elected to the Knesset, with each of them making their own recommendations as to which party leader he should choose. Naturally, the right-wing parties will recommend a candidate from the political right, whereas the left-wing parties will recommend someone from the left. Since the right-wing bloc has received more mandates in the Knesset than the left in recent years, that means that the right-wing candidate is bound to receive more recommendations.
Let’s talk about the upcoming elections. If we accept the predictions that Gantz’s party will receive about 20 mandates, Yesh Atid will end up with ten (since Gantz’s votes will come at their expense) and the Zionist Camp will win another ten, that adds up to a total of about 40 mandates. Meretz, on the left, will receive about five or six mandates, and the Arabs will win about twelve; that means that the left-wing bloc will have almost 60 mandates altogether. However, in order for a prime minister to be elected, he must be supported by a minimum of 61 mandates, and since the time of Menachem Begin, the left has never succeeded in accumulating that amount of support. The sole exception was Tzipi Livni, who would have become the prime minister with a majority of 68 mandates in her coalition, if she had given in to the demands of the chareidi parties.
In the upcoming elections, regardless of how the mandates are divided, the right-wing bloc is currently poised to receive more than the left. That means that Netanyahu will receive more recommendations for the post of prime minister than anyone else – such as Benny Gantz. Moreover, Netanyahu will be the leader of the party that receives the greatest number of mandates in the election. At this time, no one disputes the fact that the Likud is leading in the polls, with a majority of almost 30 mandates. Therefore, if everything remains the same, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will remain in office as the prime minister of Israel.
But that does not mean that he has no reason for concern. According to the polls, if Gantz’s party merges with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, then the combined parties will likely come out even with the Likud. If that happens, there is a chance that it will be Gantz, not Netanyahu, who heads the party that receives the largest number of mandates. And in that case, the president will permit Gantz to make the first attempt at forming a new government – and, in all likelihood, he will succeed.
There is another scenario in which Gantz would theoretically pose a threat to Netanyahu: if he is smart enough to form an alliance, or at least make a deal, with several other political parties that are considered part of the right-wing bloc, so that they will recommend him over Netanyahu in the traditional meeting with the president. Gantz can theoretically engineer a situation in which he will receive the largest number of recommendations from other party chairmen. For instance, one cannot discount the possibility that Moshe Kachlon would recommend Gantz. The same is true of Avigdor Lieberman, who is the most unpredictable person on the political scene. And if Orly Levi-Abekasis wins five mandates, then she may also lend her support to Gantz.
This scenario may well be expected if Netanyahu’s legal troubles continue to develop. If the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu, and he finds himself in the middle of a hearing, then there is a great probability that several of the parties on the political right will decide to recommend Gantz to form the next government, rather than Netanyahu. But to a large extent, that hinges on one question: Should Gantz himself be considered part of the right or the left? That brings us back to the issue of his long silence and his recent speech, which did not quite yield an answer that question.
A Hollow Speech and a Turnaround in the Polls
The further Gantz wades into the quagmire of Israeli politics, the more he can expect to be bashed and defamed. Last Thursday, the front-page story in Yisroel Hayom carried the headline, “Senior Officials in Yesh Atid in Closed Conversations: ‘If Gantz Doesn’t Join Us, We Will Liquidate Him Politically.’” This requires some explanation: Since Gantz’s speech and the subsequent polls, which showed a spike in his popularity that came at Yesh Atid’s expense, Yair Lapid has come under intense pressure to join forces with Gantz. The same polls also revealed two things: If Chosein L’Yisroel merges with Yesh Atid, the two parties will gain additional power, and if Gantz leads the united party, there is a serious chance that it will overcome the Likud.
Last Wednesday, twenty-four hours after Gantz launched his election campaign, Chosein L’Yisroel began gaining ground in the polls, closing the gap that separated it from the Likud party. At the same time, Yesh Atid and the Labor party grew weaker, as Gantz’s supporters defected from their constituencies. But even more importantly, if Gantz unites with Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid, the polls show that his party will receive 30 mandates while the Likud will win 31, whereas if Gantz heads the united party, it will receive 35 mandates, exceeding the projected 31 for the Likud.
Gantz is also catching up to Netanyahu in terms of the public’s view of which candidate is better suited to be prime minister. In fact, a recent News 13 poll found that the two were evenly matched, with each receiving the approval of 42 percent of the public. A different poll found that Netanyahu was leading Gantz by only one percent (36 instead of 35), while a third poll measured the gap between them at 6 percent (47 for Netanyahu and 41 for Gantz).
On that note, here are the results of this past weekend’s polls, which were conducted after Gantz’s speech. A Channel 12 poll found each party winning the following number of mandates: Likud – 30, Chosein L’Yisroel – 21, Yesh Atid – 11, Labor – 6, the Arabs – 12, the New Right – 7, UTJ – 7, Yisroel Beiteinu – 5, Shas – 5, Gesher – 5, Bayit Yehudi – 4, Kulanu – 4, and Meretz – 4. A different poll, conducted by Channel 13, yielded the following results: Likud – 30, Chosein L’Yisroel – 24, Yesh Atid – 9, Taal – 8, Ayman Oudeh – 6, Labor – 6, the New Right – 6, UTJ – 6, Shas – 5, Yisroel Beiteinu – 4, Gesher – 4, Bayit Yehudi – 4, Kulanu – 4, and Meretz – 4. Then there were the results of the Channel 10 poll: Likud – 30, Chosein L’Yisroel – 24, Yesh Atid – 9, Ahmed Tibi – 8, the Arabs – 6, Labor – 6, the New Right – 6, UTJ – 6, Shas – 5, Yisroel Beiteinu – 4, Bayit Yehudi – 4, Kulanu – 4, Orly Levy – 4, and Meretz – 4. Finally, another poll, conducted by Kan News, showed that if the elections were held today, the parties would divide the mandates as follows: Likud – 31, Chosein L’Yisroel – 23, Yesh Atid – 9, the New Right – 8, Labor – 8, the Joint Arab List – 6, UTJ – 6, Meretz – 6, Taal – 5, Yisroel Beiteinu – 5, Shas – 4, Bayit Yehudi – 4, and Kulanu – 4. According to their findings, Hatnuah and Gesher would not cross the electoral threshold.
Lapid will now find himself under tremendous pressure to merge with Gantz and to cede his position at the head of the party to the newcomer to the political scene. Perhaps it is fortunate for the chareidim of Israel that Lapid is so conceited and self-important that he would never be capable of doing that. That is the story behind the headline that I quoted. From Lapid’s perspective, there is only one choice: Gantz must agree to merge with him and submit to his leadership, not the other way around. Lapid will never accept anything but the top position on his list, even if it costs him his victory over Netanyahu. Because of that attitude, he is now in one of the most problematic periods of his political career. Gantz has also been siphoning off his mandates. Yesh Atid was originally expected to win 22 seats in the Knesset, but now, after Gantz made his entry to the political scene, the party has dropped to somewhere between ten and twelve. Every one of Netanyahu’s political foes – and there are many of them – has been demanding that Lapid relinquish his place on the party list to Gantz, but so far he has stubbornly refused.
Will the Past Haunt Benny Gantz?
Meanwhile, Gantz has retained his presumption of innocence and integrity; his public image is still pristine. Gantz served as the chief of staff of the IDF from the beginning of 2011 until the beginning of 2015. He was first appointed to the position after Gadi Ashkenazi, the nineteenth chief of staff, stepped down, and he was succeeded by the recently retired Gadi Eizenkot. Last month, the position was filled by the 22nd official to occupy it, Chief of Staff Amir Kochavi.
Gantz’s stint in the post was not without its fair share of troubles. In 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, with the goal of – believe it or not – destroying the terror tunnels that had been dug by Hamas. Sixty-eight soldiers were killed in the course of the operation, which also took the lives of over 2,000 Palestinians. When the military campaign ended, a public debate raged over whether it had been successful. The IDF was criticized fiercely for its handling of the operation, accused of being unprepared for the threat posed by the tunnels and failing to bring the campaign to a conclusion that was definitely beneficial to Israel. At the same time, the operation was followed by three years of relative quiet in the Gaza strip. As the chief of staff, Gantz absorbed the brunt of the criticism. In his recent speech, he spoke about Operation Protective Edge and averred that he wished he could change every decision that he made at the time.
What has proven to be an even greater stain on Gantz’s reputation is the death of Madhat Yusuf, an IDF soldier who bled to death on October 1, 2000, over the course of a period of four hours, while the military paramedics who had been called to save his life waited for him to be extracted from Kever Yosef. A contingent of soldiers observed the event from a hill across from the site, 800 meters away. The Palestinians were armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and light weapons, but for some reason, the necessary help never came and Yusuf was not rescued. Corporal Madhat Yusuf took his final breaths at Kever Yosef, in the heart of Shechem, in full view of Israeli security forces.
His death sparked outraged reactions throughout the country. Had the IDF abandoned a wounded soldier? Who had given the order to refrain from entering the tomb to rescue him, and instead to rely on the Palestinians, who had promised to carry the soldier to safety? Ehud Barak was serving as both prime minister and defense minister at the time, the chief of staff was Shaul Mofaz, and the IDF Central Command was headed by Yitzchok Eitan. But it was Benny Gantz who commanded the IDF forces in the area, and it seemed that he was responsible for the decision to abandon Yusuf. This episode has tarnished his image ever since it took place, even if he wasn’t truly to blame. There was also another episode, in which Gantz was accused of sacrificing the lives of IDF soldiers based on incorrect considerations. But he has his answers to those claims, as well.
The question is whether Gantz’s arguments will stand up to scrutiny when the mudslinging begins. Actually, there is an even more basic question – if anyone will be interested in targeting Gantz. If there is competition and infighting within the political left, it could very well play into Netanyahu’s hands. If the entire left wing is united, meanwhile, it would force Netanyahu and the political right to put in all possible effort to emerge victorious from the elections. Only time will tell if anyone on the right or left – in the latter case, mainly Yair Lapid – will be interested in launching a campaign of defamation against Benny Gantz.
Promises of Utopia
What did Benny Gantz actually say in his speech? It consisted of all the messages that any public relations advisor would have recommended. It was short on details and avoided anything that might be tinged with controversy. “The nation is strong, the state is wonderful; for me, Israel comes before anything else,” Gantz proclaimed. He assured the public that he will transform the country into a utopian society: He will build hospitals, every citizen will be happy, and the country will flourish. “The state is us,” he added, and then promised to oppose Netanyahu, declaring that a prime minister who has been indicted on criminal charges cannot lead the country. Gantz attacked Netanyahu vociferously, stressing that he would never find himself in the same situation as the current prime minister.
“On April 9, I will establish a government with dignity, a government with power, and a government that will act with responsibility, firmness, and determination,” Gantz declared. He also issued a warning to the Palestinian leaders, reminding them that he has already had many of them killed. “We score points through actions, not through words,” Gantz said. “A government under my leadership will not miss an opportunity to make peace … and if there is no path to peace, we will create new policies. We will strengthen Israel’s standing as a Jewish and democratic state, we will strengthen the settlement blocs, and we will strengthen the Golan Heights, from which we will never withdraw.” In short, he said everything that the average Israeli citizen would want to hear.
As could be expected, his speech was dissected by hordes of analysts. As far as the content was concerned, Gantz promised to solve every problem faced by the Jewish people and the State of Israel. He proclaimed that he will lower prices, bring about peace, raise wages, and solve the housing crisis, but he did not offer a single solution. As one of the commentators remarked, “His speech reminded me of the joke about the election rally where a professional comedian was brought in to draw a crowd. The candidate began speaking, as Gantz did, about all the things that he would do for the country: building hospitals, building homes, lowering prices, and so forth. In the middle of his speech, though, the entertainer barged onto the stage and said to the politician, ‘Excuse me, could you please stop with the jokes already? I am the comedian here!’”