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Israel Election: Abbas' '50 Holocausts' Gives Gantz the Campaign Boost He Needed

Israelis see Defense Minister Gantz as the one who put the Palestinian president in his place. This and other recent developments could make for one of the country's most interesting political comebacks

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset, in May.
Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset, in May.Credit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

A month ago, Defense Minister Gantz was waiting along with other Israeli ministers for U.S. President Joe Biden to come down the stairs of Air Force One for his visit to Israel. Just before he led Biden between an Iron Dome display and drawings made by children from the rocket-plagued south, Gantz was trying to open a sealed bottle of water with his teeth, to no avail – at least judging by a video of it that spread on social media.

This video clip, which may be understood better in light of his military past, was perceived as somewhat of an odd act, bordering on the bizarre. (Why not, say, use your hands?) It was yet another source of ridicule and another opportunity to attack Gantz, one of the most maligned politicians in the history of Israeli politics.

The defense minister has received heaps of political vitriol from both political camps. “Half-baked,” “idiot,” “weirdo” were some of the more polite names this man has been called during his brief political tenure.

Nevertheless, as his time in politics presses on, Gantz has provided more and more proof that he was doing something right after all. In Israel's last election, Gantz was called on to withdraw from the race to prevent a disaster for the centrist bloc, but he refused, and ended up surprising everyone. His party received the second-largest number of Knesset seats in the bloc after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

But in the current election cycle too, when the older Labor and Meretz parties are scraping by to reach the 3.25-percent electoral threshold to make it into parliament, he is now considered a stronghold of the camp who is carrying Gideon Sa’ar on his shoulders.

The most recent military operation in the Gaza Strip has been framed in public opinion as a success, forcing even opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to support it. Gantz got a lot of the credit for it, especially among the right, cementing Israelis' view of him as a successful defense minister.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and former military chief Gadi Eisenkot at a press briefing announcing the establishment of their National Unity Party, on Sunday.Credit: Hadas Parush

Over the past week, Gantz has also recorded two more major accomplishments. First was his success in getting former top general Gadi Eisenkot to finally decide on a party – Gantz and Sa'ar's National Unity Party – dealing a blow to his rival Lapid. On top of boosting the defense minister's ego, this achievement expands the two-headed race for prime minister, adding Gantz's name to it alongside Netanyahu and Lapid.

The second achievement is the Mahmoud Abbas “50 Holocausts” crisis. Here, Gantz managed to have his cake and eat it too. He came to be seen as someone who put the Palestinian president in his place, when he demanded that Abbas take back this overstated equivalence, all the way to a magnificent apology, and also beat back easily the criticism hurled at him for having met with Abbas, extol the security cooperation with him and to frame it as an achievement.

It is excessive to credit Abbas’ apology to Gantz alone. Lapid called Palestinian Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, and the Palestinians themselves realized that it would be better for them to put this demon quickly back into the bottle. They understood they were about to lose the little they have: the world's sympathy. An antisemitism scandal, specifically on German soil, might have been too much.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday.Credit: LISI NIESNER/Reuters

But for Gantz, this incident added to his positive momentum.

The past week demonstrated his potential for political success. Many left-wing voters, mostly Generation X and older, feel a strong and real sense of alienation from the traditional left-wing parties, because of what they recognize as excessive devotion to identity politics or progressive ideas that have gone too far.

These people struggled from the onset with this generational shift on the left and were drawn to the former military chief.

New supporters of the neo-conservative wave that is powerfully engulfing the liberal camp see in Gantz a moderate option. All of this could very well add up to one of Israel's most interesting political comebacks.

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