Analysis

Calling Gantz 'Unstable,' Netanyahu Takes a Page From Trump's Playbook

He may not have a problem with the truth like his rival Netanyahu, but Gantz sure messed up a chance to shine on live TV after Bibi underperformed in the latest scuffle in Gaza

Illustration: Netanyahu and Gallant sit on a tank facing Gantz, Ashkenzi, Ya'alon and Lapid, who are sitting on another tank.
Amos Biderman

The trans-Atlantic interviews of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz with Israeli newscasts were accidents waiting to happen. It was only after the crash that the warning lights were discussed openly. The candidate was tired, jet-lagged. He didn’t prepare properly nor was he properly briefed. No one cautioned him about the nerve-wracking delay of three or four seconds when the questions are en route between Israel and Washington. Every politician has experienced this, but for Gantz it was a baptism of fire – and he was badly burned.

To his credit, he didn’t discriminate between the news broadcasts of Channel 12 and Channel 13. He provided each with the snafu that has since fed Likud’s gutter campaign and the social-media impresarios, accusing him of being of unsound mind. He supplied anchor Yonit Levy with a stutter deriving from his unfamiliarity with the world of satellite communications. For her counterpart, Tali Moreno (“Tamar,” he called her), he put on a weird show of rolling his eyes and lurching his head backward. Never mind that he said nothing coherent or meaningful – the visual pantomime did him in.

Kahol Lavan’s campaign guru, party co-leader Yair Lapid, was stunned as he watched the catastrophe unfold. He knew that Gantz had interviews lined up in Washington but figured they’d be conducted in the Benjamin Netanyahu format: a relaxed atmosphere in a hotel room, talking to the diplomatic correspondents who accompanied him on his visit. Lapid was furious. He has enough experience to grasp the depth of the problem. Just when things were looking good for them – Gaza dominated the agenda and displaced the headlines about the Americans recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights – his candidate shot himself in the foot in a live broadcast.

Likud pounced on those segments, added a secretly made recording of Gantz (broadcast on Channel 13 News) in which he attributes to Netanyahu a desire to liquidate him. And he launched a campaign: “He’s unstable.”

Gantz’s problem is that he’s too sane. He’s human, he learns, he lacks malice. He’s not a toxic machine spreading falsehoods and spraying vitriol like his opponent. But in the Israeli reality, the truth about Bibi is less alluring and less adhesive than the lies about Gantz. Maybe it’s because we’re used to the former: his corruption, cynicism, lack of restraint, disrespect for the truth, brutality, hedonism and repulsive family. Those elements are innate to him, but when Gantz, new to our public life, screws up, it’s carnival time. Those are the rules of the game.

He’s also not suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His wife hasn’t been accused of receiving something fraudulently. His son isn’t a walking social-network stink bomb. The state comptroller’s report about the commercial ties between Fifth Dimension, a company Gantz chaired, and the Israel Police, which Likud awkwardly tried to turn into the “50-million-shekel case,” raises no grounds for suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

What we’re seeing now is very reminiscent of the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States. On one side is a serial offender who has been sued dozens of times, cheated who knows how many people, gone bankrupt, takes pride in grabbing women’s genitals, lies pathologically and humiliates members of minorities. Okay, but what about Hillary’s emails and what was that coughing fit she had?

Trump signs a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights as Netanyahu watches, March 25, 2019.
Susan Walsh,AP

The similarity between the two countries’ campaigns is illuminating. Attempts were made to claim that Clinton, too, was in a deficient mental state and/or had brain damage supposedly caused by a fall. Videos flooded the web, “medical experts” were recruited to promote Trump’s propaganda, the house network Fox News held learned discussions on the worrisome subject.

Netanyahu’s people are copying these methods. Other than claiming that Gantz is a pedophile and a necrophile, and that his mother is an Arab (well, we still have 10 days to go), there’s no filth that the garbage pail kids from the Prime Minister’s Residence isn’t trying to attach to him. This time they went too far. Israelis, even on the right, are disgusted by the level that has been descended to, fitting to Likud standards, for which all that’s foul is fair.

Operation accountability

If we’re on the subject of mental instability, the rock of our existence was caught, as he left Washington, in a moment that wasn’t exactly a model of self-control and sangfroid. The mess in the Gaza Strip forced him to cut short his visit to Washington. The speech he planned for the AIPAC conference, the festive dinner Trump had organized for him – all of it went down the tubes because of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza. The brief White House ceremony was broadcast live on Israel’s television channels but gave way immediately to depressing reports from the south: 200,000 Israelis unable to leave their homes, ghost cities, despair, suffering, special broadcasts, lethal criticism of government policy.

American recognition of Israel’s status in the Golan was supposed to be the jet fuel to keep Likud flying high until Election Day. First, four days of American-style ecstasy, then the return home straight into the liberated Heights, for a series of displays starring the redeemer of the soil and son of the gods.

But it went awry. The suitcases were packed hastily and the convoy set out for the airport. Waiting at the foot of the plane were the reporters. He sprang from the car like a missile from its launchpad, spluttering. “You only covered a minute,” he raged, referring to the White House event. “For that, accounts will be settled with you!” (By whom? Likud activists? Thugs with clubs who are hired by the campaign? A post-election tribunal? The heavenly court?)

His carefully maintained facade was shattered to bits on the tarmac. We saw him in his pettiness, his shrewishness. After countless requests, when he was already on the plane, he deigned to mumble two sentences about what was happening in Israel. Not a word of empathy or encouragement for the Israelis, men, women and children, who under his 10-year rule have become hostages of a terror group and are unable to live a normal life. All we got were tiresome clichés about a tough response, which also fell apart 12 hours after he landed, when he went to Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv and ordered the army to return to routine.

In his absence, Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant served as acting defense minister. Gallant, a retired major general who has headed Southern Command, did a victory lap with the media, though it’s not clear over what or why. Israel was defeated in this round, just as in the past. Defeated and humiliated. What was intended to be a pitiable “victory photo,” the destroyed office of Ismail Haniyeh, turned into the Hamas prime minister’s finest hour, as he was photographed next to the ruins, signaling a “V” with his hand.

In a poll published the day after the escalation, 56 percent of the respondents said they weren’t satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of security – 15 points higher than in the previous survey. The three Kahol Lavan chiefs of staff – Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon – are meant to offer a triumphant reply, one that has never been arrayed against Netanyahu. Somehow, it’s just not working.

On Thursday the following statistic was officially released: In 2018, 1,150 rockets were fired at Israel, compared to 35 a year earlier. Security is his soft underbelly. Two weeks ago, two missiles were launched at Tel Aviv, last November 500 missiles at the south of the country. The defense minister resigned and said Israel was surrendering to Hamas, and now a missile hits a house in the center of the country, dozens of rockets are fired at the south, and for dessert two missiles are fired at Ashkelon. (After the cease-fire!) And Mr. Strong Hand and Outstretched Arm is hiding from the public.

True believers

On Tuesday morning, Gabi Ashkenazi, No. 4 on the Kahol Lavan slate, visited Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border. All around, the army was doing its thing. Soldiers scurried, tanks and other vehicles roared, helicopters hovered overhead.

Political sources were quoted saying there was no cease-fire. “Are you prepared?” the former chief of staff asked the audience. “Prepared for what?” they asked back. “For the continuation of the fighting – look at all the army here,” Ashkenazi said. The kibbutzniks laughed. “We believe Sinwar,” they told him. “If he says it’s over, it’s over.”

Moshe Yaalon, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi deliver a statement in Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Israel Gaza border, March 13, 2019.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Netanyahu is getting a lot of credit, alongside fierce criticism, for the restraint he’s showing. But when it comes to credibility, Hamas’ leader in Gaza outdoes him, with one hand tied behind his back. We’ve been here before. From Gaza come the tidings that Egypt has negotiated a cease-fire, official Israel is silent and doesn’t confirm anything, and sometimes even denies the reports, and the IDF spokesman is sent to fudge before the cameras. But in a quiet whisper, Home Front Command lifts the restrictions and so forth.

As expected, the latest round was also short. Two weeks before the election, Netanyahu is the last person who will embark on a military adventure without anyone knowing how it will play out in the voting booths. Besides providing satisfaction and plenty of work for building contractors in Gaza, the Israeli action didn’t kill any Hamas activists, in what Netanyahu called a response of “great force … on a scale not seen since the end of the military operation in Gaza four years ago” (in a prerecorded speech to the AIPAC conference).

It turns out that Israeli airstrikes are perfect life insurance for Hamas leaders. They get sufficient advance warning to remove equipment from buildings and remove themselves to bomb shelters. In the event of an attack on an unconventional target, such as the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, someone in Israel calls to warn them. Thus it was this time too.

Underlying this regular practice led by Hamas crusher / Mr. Security / Mr. Terrorism Fighter Netanyahu is a transparent strategy that every child in Israeli communities near Gaza understands: to preserve Hamas rule at almost any cost. And if that requires the injection of millions of dollars, so be it.

As long as Haniyeh and Sinwar are holding the reins, Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank isn’t relevant and isn’t a partner for an agreement. And as long as Israel behaves with knee-jerk inconclusiveness – waiting hours after a missile hits the center of the country or reaches Tel Aviv’s skies, then launching a bombing raid against sand and empty buildings and calling it a knockout – Hamas will continue to pester and ridicule the only military superpower in the Middle East.

When Ashkenazi was chief of staff, he would tell the security cabinet: It can’t be helped, there’s a link between a significant achievement and a high price. With the exception of targeted assassinations, which can be done from the air, striking at Hamas leaders requires initiative and surprise – originality. It will also almost certainly trigger a large-scale operation or a war, as with Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09, which Israel launched on a Shabbat.

Now Ashkenazi is part of the Kahol Lavan quartet. In a closed meeting he was asked what he will do if his group takes power. It’s impossible to understand what you people are saying, someone complained. You are too vague.

His reply was clear and comprehensible. The rounds of fighting have exhausted themselves, he said, Israel must take the initiative, operate by surprise. The terrorists have to be caught in their camps, in their command posts. Kill as many Hamas leaders and commanders as possible, and don’t be deterred from an extensive operation that would include ground elements. And immediately afterward, spearhead a regional initiative for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.

In the second stage, we have to co-opt the countries with a positive approach – Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and possibly also Abbas if he wants. The effort will be to raise funds, offer to build a desalination plant, provide immediate assistance with treatment of sewage, water purification, electricity infrastructure. There are a million things to do there, but only after Hamas is shunted aside. That’s effectively the Kahol Lavan plan if it forms the government.

What you’re saying sounds logical, Ashkenazi’s interlocutor noted. Why doesn’t Netanyahu do it? He delays and delays, Ashkenazi replied, he prefers to contain the event. But Sinwar can’t be contained. The people there are starting to rebel. To demonstrate. People are fed up. If Sinwar doesn’t fight us in Israel, he’ll fight the Gazans. He prefers to lose to the Israeli army than to his own people. He remembers what happened to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Dog eat puppy

The next few days will be the most critical in the election campaign. The polls show that 20 seats are intended for parties that are hovering too close to the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. The pollsters, perhaps out of fear, usually assign these parties the minimum of four seats. The final picture will be different. Not all the existing parties are going to reach the finish line. The disappearance of some of them will change the balance of force between the blocs.

The right-wing bloc is more vulnerable, with more parties at risk. On the other side, Kahol Lavan’s strategy is two-pronged: Beat Likud by as many seats as possible by drawing votes from Labor in the final days, and pray that at least two parties on the other side – from among Yisrael Beiteinu, Kulanu, Hayamin Hehadash and Shas – don’t make it into the Knesset.

The signal for the launch of the project to steal votes from Labor was given by Lapid. “Every vote for Labor is a vote for Bibi,” he said in an interview this week. Labor chief Avi Gabbay lashed out at him. He reminded Lapid of the alliance of brothers he forged with Naftali Bennett after the 2013 election, an alliance that basically formed Netanyahu’s third coalition.

There’s no choice, a senior figure in Kahol Lavan said this week. Labor is racking up eight to nine seats in the polls, and nothing terrible will happen if three or four of them shift to us. What’s more important to your voters? Toppling Netanyahu or getting Revital Swid re-elected to the Knesset?

I put this question to Gabbay’s office. Unconditionally, replacing him – was the response. But it’s not acceptable to annihilate us, came the reply. To this day we are acting responsibly because of the importance of the shared goal of changing the government. But if they trash us, we too will have something to say. For example, why did Moshe Ya’alon remember the awful corruption in the submarine affair only after he was forced out of office? Where was he until then, that hero?

Today, Friday, with 10 days to go, Kahol Lavan is set to launch its voting-strategy campaign. “Every vote counts! Victory for Kahol Lavan!” the campaign will shout. “Everyone who votes for another party is voting for Bibi.”

By “another” they mean Labor and Meretz. If the initial polls indicate a vote swing, Likud won’t remain behind. Netanyahu is a proficient pumper of votes. Have no fear, he’ll say to anyone hesitating between Likud and Hayamin Hehadash. Ayelet Shaked will be my justice minister even with her party winning four seats, but what good will eight seats do for them if Gantz forms the government?

In the face of the big boys’ attack on their little sisters, the gals will respond with their own campaigns. They’ll appeal to their voters’ Jewish hearts. Gantz will join a Bibi government in any case, Gabbay and Shelly Yacimovich will say, and will use a recording of his remarks to prove it. Bibi will co-opt Gantz into his government in any case, Bennett and Shaked will tell their voters, so at least let us be a meaningful force.

Gantz and Bibi, Bibi and Gantz, it’s the same thing, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon will tell his supporters; in the end I’m the only one who cares about you, the only one who really looked after your needs this term. And Shas’ Arye Dery, poor guy, will exhume Rabbi Ovadia Yosef from his saintly grave and lament his lament, wail his wail, and shed his tears.