Analysis

Could Gantz Be Israel's Trump?

Similar to Trump, Gantz's secret was accurately reading the current sentiment among his potential supporters' camp. But the road to the Prime Minister's Office remains perilous

Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the United States raised an interesting question about Israeli politics. Could someone here also emerge from outside the political system, shake up the game and win power? Benny Gantz proved that such a leap might be possible – at least as far as the threshold of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Now, he has two-and-a-half months to see if he really can evict the current residents.

Gantz didn’t appear out of nowhere; he was chief of staff, his name and face were familiar. But his political aspirations were vague. He didn’t do anything of value that resonated with the public since he came out of the army. His record in uniform isn’t being taught in military history lessons. It was hard to compare him to the war hero Ariel Sharon or to the decorated soldier Ehud Barak, who were marked as candidates for state leadership many years before they got there.

Gantz’s secret was accurately reading the current sentiment among his potential supporters’ camp. These people were sick of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule and were frustrated by the weakness of his political rivals, Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay, who were seen as inexperienced and lacking gravitas in matters of statesmanship and security.

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Gantz provides his voters an answer with his rank, his military experience and his caution when it comes to controversial moves and statements. The British military historian and theorist Liddell Hart called it “the line of least resistance” on the way to the goal. Gantz lulled his rivals in the center and left to sleep, until they found themselves harnessed to his cart.

Gantz has also proved politically adept at forming a ticket centered on the connection with Lapid and enlisting Gabi Ashkenazi. His test now will be in honing the message and enforcing discipline among this band on the way to the polls, under attacks from the right and Netanyahu’s desperate moves, which will only intensify when the attorney general makes the announcement of the expected indictment against the prime minister.

The confrontation in the elections is clear. Gantz represents the old Israel, the great society that solves problems by increasing the state budget, Avi Nissenkorn’s Histadrut and the double careers of active-duty soldiers. He stands for the wars and bombings and targeted assassinations he highlights in his films and speeches. In fact, it’s Ben Gurion’s dream, played to Naomi Shemer’s melodies.

Opposite him stands Netanyahu, the anarchist and pacifist who abhors big government, trade unions and wars, who even after a decade in power pretends to represent a coalition of those who consider themselves oppressed and to refer to the state’s institutions, the army and justice system as “them.”

Can Gantz win? Motivation and political capability are leaning in his favor, but the election is determined in the president’s residence, and the way there is tortuous. Behind Netanyahu stands a camp united in its ideology – keeping the territories and open hatred of Arabs. Gantz needs the support of a bloc beginning with Moshe Ya’alon and Yoaz Hendel and continues all the way to Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. There’s no agreement in this bloc about anything, except replacing Netanyahu. And it has parties in danger of extinction, Labor and Meretz who weren’t wise enough to unite.

Gantz needs to hope Moshe Kahlon and Orly Levi-Abekasis don’t make it into the Knesset, that the left wing parties are saved and most important – that the indictment and Netanyahu’s tricks drive moderate right-wing voters into Kahol Lavan’s arms – or simply keep them at home on April 9. Not easy, but not impossible, as Donald Trump has shown.