Analysis

Netanyahu's Top Rival Has Found a Way to Psych Out the Prime Minister

Despite attacks from Netanyahu's cronies, former Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz is running neck-and-neck with the prime minister

An illustration of Benny Gantz.
Amos Biderman

Without a doubt, these are good days for Benny Gantz. From his hiding places between his home in Rosh Ha’ayin and his office in Tel Aviv, he is enjoying the fruits of his labors without laboring. His prolonged silence is serving him well. His handsome face, which exudes calm, peers at us from every newspaper and on every website, as if to say: Relax, it’ll be fine, Daddy’s here.

There’s not a newscast that doesn’t deal with him, in a tone somewhere between neutral and positive. The “negative” is usually pretty lame and mostly serves him.

For example, when, by order of the Balfour Street war room, Science Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) spews out the recycled lie that Gantz’s wife, Revital, is a member of a left-wing organization – the bluff is exposed immediately and everything rebounds back on the fabricator.

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When Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), who is a character-defamation pro, is contemptuous of Gantz’s military skills, as though she were some sort of Mrs. von Clausewitz – she exposes the fears of the person who dispatched her.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant.
Emil Salman

And when Yoav Gallant (ex-Kulanu, now Likud and immigrant absorption minister), the new toy on Benjamin Netanyahu’s desk, mutters about Gantz – with an “if looks could kill” expression – that, “He knows why he’s keeping quiet” – everyone understands that this is the dowry he’s paying to the individual who welcomed him to Likud with open arms and intends to help him in the primary.

Gantz has not been harmed by all this noise. A midweek poll on Channel 10 found that he’s running almost neck-and-neck with Netanyahu on the question of suitability for prime minister: 38 percent vs. 41 percent for the incumbent. That figure reflects a groundswell of support for Gantz that virtually spans the entire center-left bloc, in the face of a similar picture vis-a-vis Netanyahu in the rival camp.

It’s hard not to imagine a situation in which Gantz keeps his political virginity until, say, four weeks before the April 9 Election Day. And then, with the other contestants sprawled on the floor, battered and exhausted, he launches a blitz of speeches at well-organized rallies packed with fans. He gives only a few interviews to select journalists, in which he declaims measured, meticulously vetted messages. And thus he dances his way to the polling stations: clean, pure, starched and exuding a fresh scent of anemones. Sorry – roses.

That’s a tempting scenario, but not a realistic one. As of this weekend, Gantz plan is to launch his campaign and deliver his debut speech during the second half of January. Next week, he has scheduled a short meeting with a Druze delegation that is making the rounds and conferring with various party leaders to ask them to amend the nation-state law. Gantz will no doubt talk about how wonderful their community is, about the “covenant of blood” with Jewish Israelis and so on. That will be the appetizer before the main course.

The campaign kickoff speech is in the works. Draft follows draft. He will talk a good deal about “unity.” One idea raised in his circle is for him to sell himself as the head of a national unity government that will be formed after the election, one representing a broad consensus. In our factionalized political arena today, everyone is disqualifying everyone else: Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni nix Netanyahu; Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Lieberman veto Gabbay; the far right disqualifies the far left; Yaakov Litzman excludes Lapid and so on. Gantz will try to persuade the public that on his watch, it will be possible to ingather most of these parties to form one coalition.

The problem lies in the follow-up to that declaration. The first question he’ll be asked will be: If you support unity so much, would you be ready to serve in a Netanyahu government? Thus far, Lapid (Yesh Atid), Gabbay (Labor) and Livni (Hatnuah) have rejected that option – but Gantz won’t rule it out. He’ll circle around the dialogue, say that he intends to win and the like, but we won’t hear a nyet from him. He’s not out to warm a chair in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He’s aiming for a senior ministerial portfolio – defense or foreign affairs (and what’s wrong with education, he has said to interlocutors) – and for maximum influence.

Vain hope

It’s clear to Gantz that the 12 to 14 seats his party, Hosen L’Yisrael, is getting in the polls don’t put him in the ballpark of being the one to form the next government. He’s waiting for one of the two other former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff – Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon (with a clear preference for the former) – and for the independent MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, who has reestablished her father’s Gesher party: Gantz apparently believes that having another IDF chief by his side, along with a social-justice symbol who also happens to be a Mizrahi woman, could help catapult him to the top.

Meanwhile, he is exerting heavy pressure on Ashkenazi – on an almost daily basis. They were never good buddies, but Gantz sees Ashkenazi as having vast importance: Ashkenazi completes him, bolsters him and makes up for his weaknesses; he’s from the Golani infantry brigade, he’s a Mizrahi and he can garner votes in realms where Gantz will have a hard time breaching the walls.

Gantz would love to see Ashkenazi and Levi-Abekasis by his side at his party launch, but it’s going to take time. They’ll want to see him enter the kitchen, withstand the heat, and absorb the inevitable flood of vilification and bad-mouthing – without flinching.

Ashkenazi certainly doesn’t have to be in any hurry. He’s flying solo. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no need to hurry before the deadline for submission of party slates – February 22. If Lapid weakens and gets a good offer from Gantz, Ashkenazi will offer himself as No. 3 on the party’s list, maybe No. 4. He has long since abandoned the dream of conquering the summit, but hasn’t relinquished the dream of seeing the guy that’s on top today descend from it.

Elections in Israel are determined in the security-diplomatic realm. That’s the prevailing assumption and it will probably hold this time as well. As long as there are four seething fronts – Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank – the vote of many citizens will be dictated by security concerns.

With Gantz and Ashkenazi in the picture, the question of whether there’s someone to answer the red phone when it rings at 3 A.M., with the air force or Mossad chief on the line, becomes superfluous. This will be the first campaign in a decade in which Netanyahu, who has accumulated respectable mileage in office, will be challenged by a figure, maybe two, with inarguable security credentials.

In this militaristic country, if you’ve been chief of staff you don’t have to prove anything. All you have to do is show up.

Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999, respectively, defeated two Likud prime ministers, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. Their security aura and unchallenged military records allowed both of them to conduct a campaign without resorting to justifications or self-defense, and enabled them to respond to other concerns of the public. Rabin harped on the governmental corruption that had spread under Likud (with a slogan declaring that the public was fed up with the party’s corrupt ways). Barak felt sufficiently confident of his rank and medals to emphasize social issues such as the overcrowding in hospitals.

Former IDF chief Benny Gantz.
Gil Eliahu

Election campaigns are for the most part decided on a single issue (in Israel it’s usually security-diplomatic, but now only security, because diplomacy is out). But still, something more is needed, one more thing to tip the scales.

Accordingly, Gantz intends to focus on social issues. On traffic jams, overcrowding in hospitals, inequality, children living in poverty, Israel’s shameful place as the poorest country in the OECD. He will explain to Israelis that even though things aren’t so bad here, they would be a lot better off with a change in the order of priorities.

Still, 2019 is not 1999 or 1992. Israeli society has undergone substantial, deep changes in the past decade. It has become more right-wing and more extreme, racist, religious and violent. Gantz’s hope of fomenting a turnabout under the existing circumstances is a pipe dream.

Deep down, he surely realizes this. Like the other players in the opposition and the coalition, in the right, the left and the center, Gantz is looking ahead to the battle after the war. When the attorney general decides, as now appears probable, to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges following a hearing. When the cards are re-dealt, Gantz be there at the table, with a parliamentary faction that has political and perhaps also ministerial experience, and on his shoulders the insignia whose luster shall not dim.

The price of success

A party leader was watching television Monday evening, tensed up ahead of the “dramatic announcement” that was about to be made, which had stretched to the limit the already-frayed nerves of the political arena waiting to hear it.

Netanyahu’s performance that night was like an own goal, that same party leader remarked afterward. The prime minister – who is a suspect in three bribery cases, and who remembered to ask for a confrontation with the witnesses only after the train had left the station – seemed stressed out and worried. Beneath the heavy makeup that covered the premier’s face, the viewer thought he saw serious apprehension about what the future holds.

When it was all over, the party leader, without regret, concluded that Netanyahu had lost more than he gained. To confirm his feeling, he had his pollster conduct a quick internet survey among 700 people constituting a representative sample of the population. Experienced pollsters can do that. An internet cross-section is constantly at their beck and call. They are in regular touch with the group updated, use it to draw up demographic clusters and through it they keep tabs on the public mood, in the light of current events.

The party leader was given the results of the poll, hot out of the oven, very late that same night. It turned out that he had been wrong, big-time. Likud shot up by about five Knesset seats; the poll predicted 34 MKs for the party. And most of the support that was added to the ruling party – whose leader, if reelected, will likely hold office for less than a year – came from the coalition-party voters.

Some of the other parties, according to the survey, were on the brink of the threshold required to enter the Knesset, which is approximately four seats. To name them wouldn’t be fair, as the poll was not entirely meticulous and accurate. It was conducted via the internet, late in the evening, and when the impression of Netanyahu’s “give me a confrontation” speech was fresh.

Nevertheless, it’s of tremendous importance. It shows how effective and sharp the messages of the best and most experienced campaigner in politics are; how skilled he is at reaching the hearts of right-wing voters. With one media appearance (remember “the Arabs are flocking to the polling stations in droves” from Election Day in 2015?) he’s capable of moving mountains, shaking the foundations of the earth.

It’s the pied-piper effect, the politician who commissioned the poll said. Imagine Netanyahu pulling a similar stunt a day or two before the vote, or even on April 9. It could have a mega-dramatic effect on the electorate and on the election results.

But a great danger also lurks for Netanyahu: To form a coalition, he needs a stable bloc of at least 61 MKs, consisting of Likud, right-wing/right-center parties, and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties. His strategy so far in the campaign has been to focus solely on himself, his innocence, his victimization, his persecution and the conspiracy woven against him by the media, the police, the left and the law-enforcement agencies.

If he’s too successful, as seen in the internet poll, he’s liable to find himself on April 10 with a large party and backing from the voters, but with a leaky bloc and without enough parties to recommend him to the president to form a government (since some of his natural partners will not have passed the threshold).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
\ Ilan Assayag

Netanyahu is like a huge vacuum cleaner that sucks up every hidden crumb in the house, but along the way swallows up the owner’s jewels.

Vengeance is his

Netanyahu’s loathing for the Sharon family was forged over nearly two decades of political competition and burning personal animosity between him and the patriarch. In most of the confrontations between Arik and Bibi, the latter lost. Time after time he was cut down by Sharon’s wickedness, which contained elements of peasant wisdom and generals’ smarts.

Ariel Sharon’s sons, Gilad and Omri, participated in all the schemes devised and all the traps set for Netanyahu. In some cases, they were the brains behind the plot. From 1996 until 2005, the first item in the family’s bank of targets was “that thing,” in the patriarch’s blistering jargon. Sharon’s death did not kill Netahnyahu’s hatred and the passion for revenge.

This week, Amit Segal reported on Israel Television News that Netanyahu had decided to block the path of Gilad, 53, who’s competing for a place on Likud’s Knesset slate in the Negev district. The reason is procedural: The three-year period that a new Likud member must wait before running in the primary has not yet ended. Gilad Sharon still has about 100 days to go on the clock since his formal rejoining of the party.

This is the height of cynicism. Except in extreme circumstances, that waiting period is automatically abbreviated for anyone who wants to run in the party. Dozens of Likud MKs, past and present, had their waiting time significantly reduced. The latest example is Yoav Gallant, late of Kulanu, whose waiting time was reduced by three years less a few hours after he joined the party. Past examples include Avi Dichter, Zeev Elkin, Tzachi Hanegbi, Miri Regev, Moshe Ya’alon, Tzipi Hotovely and many others.

Aware of the feebleness and ridiculousness of the technical argument, Netanyahu added one of substance. “The prime minister,” according to a Likud communique, “has already reached agreement with the head of the secretariat, Yisrael Katz, to the effect that those running in the districts will not get a reduction of the minimal waiting time, so that movement activists who have been members for many years will have a fairer chance in the contest.”

Such consideration for the “activists” – the devoted, hardscrabble soldiers whose wish is to be elected to the Knesset from the districts, where they would need only a few thousand votes to get on the slate, according to the Likud primary system.

But a few hours earlier, Netanyahu pushed through a new election regulation, which shunted the districts that are so dear to his heart to totally unrealistic places on the party ticket. The Haifa district was downgraded to 34th spot on the list, the coastal plain district to 36, Jerusalem to 37, the regional districts as a group to 38, and so on. The Judea and Samaria district, for example, was relegated to the fifth decile.

Most of the districts are in marginal or semi-marginal places on the list. A few of them (the Dan Bloc, Galilee and Valleys, Tel Aviv) were given realistic places on the slate. The Negev district, where Sharon wants to run – one of his rivals will be Lior Katsav, brother of former president Moshe Katsav – is in 27th place. Which is why Sharon had to be blocked.

Netanyahu is giving the veteran activists a pointless “fairer chance,” a chance that has already taken their money but will leave them outside the Knesset, with debts and a second mortgage. With his leg he kicks them, with his tongue he caresses them.

Bitten by the bug

Chemi Peres is a businessman, a leader in the realm of venture capital in Israel. He is a managing general partner and co-founder of the Pitango VC fund and is well regarded. However, as he declared in an interview with the Globes financial daily last week, at the age of 60, he’s been bitten by the political bug he inherited from his father. Recently Peres turned down an offer from Labor chair Gabbay for a guaranteed seat on the party’s Knesset ticket. Not that Peres has anything against the party for which his father played almost every possible role in the government. He has something against sitting idly in the opposition, in a sinking party.

If Peres were to get an offer, for instance, from Benny Gantz for a high spot on his party’s list, he wouldn’t think twice about saying yes.

Asked to comment, Gabbay’s bureau said that he will address the issue of guaranteed spots on the ticket only after the party primary, on February 11.