Analysis

For the First Time in Years, It Looks Like Israel Has an Alternative to Netanyahu

Benny Gantz’s speech Tuesday was riddled with clichés, but the promise of statesmanship that the leader of the new Hosen L’Yisrael party is selling to the public will find takers

Benny Gantz greeting supporters at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, January 29, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The truth is that Benny Gantz’s maiden political speech on Tuesday was excellent. That’s not so much because of what he said. It was a collection of rather banal clichés designed to ingratiate the Hosen L’Yisrael party leader with the widest possible common denominator of supporters. But more important was that Gantz managed to pass his initiation by fire, which is the threshold of the absurd expectations at this time.

There’s no escaping the fact that Gantz is a more attractive and more pleasant man than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – someone who, unlike the prime minister, projects credibility and modesty. It sounds silly, and it is silly, but there is no escaping the fact that assets like that are of great value, certainly in an era of short tweets on social media.

Gantz stepped off the podium in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night to shake the hand of someone in the audience – a trick that surely he and his advisers must have worked on over and over – and then he returned to the stage and shrugged in surprise, and it brought an uncontrollable smile to my face. Yes, the manipulation worked on me.

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Gantz’s message of statesmanship will find a receptive ear not only on the left, but also on the right. After the disgusting era exemplified by Culture Minister Miri Regev, the offer of statesmanship is something that the public will be snap up. One right-wing Likud politician, Gideon Sa’ar to be exact, is waiting in the wings and building a plan precisely based on the premise that the public has had enough of the venom of the Netanayhu era. That’s a decent plan.

This message, by the way, is why Netanyahu’s troops went on the offensive after Gantz’s speech. More than despicable minions, their response was more a display of exaggerated wailing by people who had been sent out with faulty instructions and an outdated map of the lay of the land. Justifiably or not, Gantz is sending the right wing into fits of hysteria.

Gantz delivered his address right after the dramatic announcement that Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party would be running on a joint ticket with Hosen L’Yisrael and that Telem candidates would be given advantageous slots on the slate in the April 9 Knesset election. At this stage, Gantz is taking primary ownership when it comes linking up with additional political groupings.

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But most importantly, the current move with Telem prevents Ya’alon, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, from becoming window dressing for Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid in the arm-wrestling match over whether Yesh Atid will also join forces with Gantz, something that is likely to go on until the last moment.

Another reason for the rather strange deal with Ya’alon is that it puts paid to the criticism that Gantz is left-wing. It’s hard to believe that Gantz will be successful on that score because, according to the sick rule of thumb devised by Netanyahu and instilled in the electorate, anyone who doesn’t personally support Netanyahu is a leftist.

In addition, and this is the truth, the Hosen L’Yisrael-Telem linkup involves a partnership between Gantz, a closet leftist and Ya’alon, a leftist in denial. They are not leftists of the type that find acceptance in the best of Tel Aviv’s salons. The two apparently have that healthy version of racism of the Labor Party’s Mapai predecessor. Otherwise they would never have lasted in the army and would never have taken responsibility for the deaths of so many people. But in the rough cultural divide that determines voting patterns in Israel, they are left-wing.

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The linkup also lays the groundwork for candidates to come. Television personality Miki Haimovich, for example, who is expected to conclude an agreement shortly with Gantz to be on his slate, had previously been in discussions with the left-wing Meretz party. She won’t have any problem sitting with Ya’alon and he won’t have trouble sitting with her. After all, they’re members of the same party that is to put an end to the Netanyahu government and its rabble. And Yair Lapid is also an important, natural partner in this movement.

After a decade of hard work, it’s surely not easy for Lapid to see a new player enter the picture who has outrageously outrun him with such ease. But unlike Lapid, who is full of mannerisms, Gantz comes across as genuine and therefore engenders real affection. If Lapid, who had offered Gantz an unprecedented number of slots in the top ten on his own Yesh Atid slate, doesn’t now concede the top slot to Gantz, he could suffer a significant blow and hurt mainly himself.

By contrast, Gantz suddenly looks like a real alternative.