Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz has not gotten closer this week to becoming Israel’s next prime minister. We are nearly halfway through the four-week period he received from President Reuven Rivlin to try and form a government. As the empty talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and other parties continue, Gantz still has no idea which Knesset members are going to approve his cabinet, should he have one to present to the Knesset. But as of Saturday night, he has one title nailed down.
The 24th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was the perfect event to anoint Gantz, the keynote speaker, as the leader of the Israeli tribe that rallies under centrist banners, but not the leader of the left wing and definitely not the so-called “peace camp.” Gantz spoke for nearly twenty minutes, and apart from a few vague words on the need to shake hands with enemies he had nothing to say about any future plans to achieve diplomatic progress with the Palestinians.
What Gantz had to say was strictly for internal, tribal consumption. His words were comforting ones on the need to stick together against hatred and incitement while standing behind law enforcement institutions, the Israel Defense Forces and the judiciary. But the words mattered less than the man saying them. Once again centrist Israelis had their white-haired general to reassure them.
It’s a mistake to call this the Israeli left. The Israeli left is a myth. Rabin was never a man of the left. He was the man who advised to tighten the siege imposed on Beirut in 1982 and who gave the order to break arms and legs at the start of the First Intifada. He had shaken Yasser Arafat’s hand, barely hiding his revulsion, because he preferred for the Palestinian Liberation Organization to handle Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza “without the High Court and without B'Tselem,” instead of the army doing it. Until his dying day, he never supported the two-state solution.
Gantz spoke before the tribe of the Israeli center. The secular establishment which built the state and its institutions and still can’t accept that Likudniks, religious and Mizrahi Israelis, have an equal claim.
Those who choose their broad notion of Israeliness over a more religious identity of Jewishness pertain to the Israeli tribe. This was Tel Aviv and its suburbs. And overwhelmingly it was Ashkenazi Israel, as underlined by the fact that the man who actually holds the same political position as did Rabin – Labor Party leader Amir Peretz – wasn’t even invited to speak at the rally. This may have been more of an indication that Labor, with its paltry six seats in the Knesset, is historically finished. It also attested to the fact that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, with its 33 seats, is the new center. But at least on a subconscious level, it was a repudiation of Peretz, the Moroccan-born politician from the Negev development town of Sderot, and his quest to make it in Israel’s political heartland.
But Peretz, even after shaving his bushy mustache off, simply doesn’t have what Gantz has — the patrician bearing, the piercing blue eyes, and the lieutenant-general epaulets that both he and Rabin wore as army chiefs of staff. Labor and Democratic Union activist were in the square, but they were there to pledge allegiance to the tribe’s new leader.
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“Yitzhak! The state is back! We won the election!” cried Shimon Sheves, Rabin’s right-hand man in his speech. Gantz hasn’t won the election. At best, he achieved a stalemate against Benjamin Netanyahu, but that couldn’t detract from the homecoming at Rabin Square. Because for the first time since Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon in 2001, the Israeli tribe feels it has a leader again. Barak was the last politician that the tribe felt was a successor to Rabin.
None of the leaders of Labor and other centrist parties since had anything that came even close. Even Sharon, who left Likud in 2005, would always be an ex-Likudnik. As was Kadima’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. And since Shelly Yacimovich and Tzipi Livni are women and both Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid are lightweights, none of them could take up Rabin’s mantle.
Certainly not Peretz from Sderot or Labor’s other “Moroccan”, businessman Avi Gabbay. Amram Mitzna was an ex-general as well, and he came from the right side of the tracks, but there was always something a bit too other-worldly, and probably too left-wing about him.
Gantz has not only the military credentials, but that same kind of diffident bashfulness and look of slight discomfort in the limelight as well as the ability to be a security hawk without veering too much to the right.
Gantz has yet to enter the prime minister’s office, but the Israeli tribe has been waiting for its white knight for so long and Gantz is the knight from central casting. This doesn’t mean he can hold on to his new title forever. Barak, who had literally received his officer’s rank from Rabin back in 1961 and been brought into politics by him in 1995, months before the assassination, lost the mantle after proving himself a failure as a prime minister who couldn’t hold on to office for even a few years. He never regained it and was tainted by serving for four years under Netanyahu as his defense minister.
Gantz could end up just like Barak. His coronation as the new leader of the tribe, at the Rabin memorial rally, comes with a warning: Give in to Netanyahu by agreeing to serve in his government, along with the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers, and you shall lose the right to be considered Rabin’s successor.