Analysis

Gantz Owes His Sudden Ascent to 20th-century Cult of Generals and 21st-century 'Reality-politik'

But his campaign may have blossomed too prematurely to yield the sweet fruit that Netanyahu's opponents crave

Benny Gantz arrives to deliver his first political speech at his party's campaign launch in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The first president of the United States, George Washington, was a general. So were 11 of his 44 successors – eight Republicans and three Democrats. Statistically, a high military rank is second only to a lawyer’s degree on the list of prior occupations of U.S. presidents. Only three of the 12 general-presidents parachuted directly to the White House without interim stops in politics, as former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz is now trying to do: Washington, hero of the War of Independence, Ulysses Grant, vanquisher of Confederate armies and Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied forces that defeated the Nazis.

Contrary to its self-perception, therefore, Israel does not own the patent for recruiting its decorated generals as political leaders. Societies that perceive a constant threat to their existence naturally admire the armies that protect them and the men that command them. Most of the generals who became presidents were elected during the 19th century, when America was preoccupied with its Manifest Destiny, an extended war of dislocation and extermination against Native Americans, battles with countries such as Britain, Spain and Mexico and the bloody Civil War, which nearly destroyed America itself. 

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Since the start of the 20th century, however, as America blossomed into a world superpower and devoted itself to entrenching its civil society, Eisenhower is the only general to go straight from the army barracks to the West Wing, and at supersonic speed: He retired from army service only five months before being elected for the first time in 1952. Besides embodying the victory over Nazi Germany, Eisenhower succeeded in defeating Adlai Stevenson, one of the brightest presidential candidates ever fielded by Democrats. Eisenhower's victory came against the backdrop of Republican agitation against perceived Communist infiltration of Harry Truman’s Democratic administration, but also – in what is more relevant to Gantz and Israeli politics today – by virtue of his clean image, which contrasted with widespread allegations of corruption in the Truman administration, his moderate and centrist positions and the fact that he was perceived, much like Gantz, as down to earth and affable: “I Like Ike” was his winning slogan.

After Eisenhower, American voters reverted to choosing three successive presidents who were professional and experienced politicians – Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. But Watergate broke the trend and precipitated a dramatic loss of public confidence in politics and elected institutions. The crisis sparked a renewed search for fresh faces, untarnished by politics-as-usual, who would burst out of America’s boondocks to drain the “swamp” in Washington, as it is known today. James Carter came from Georgia and was greeted by rivals as “Jimmy Who”; Ronald Reagan turned a Hollywood acting career into a stepping stone on the way to governing California and winning the White House twice; Bill Clinton came forth from Arkansas, despite the fact that most voters knew nothing about either; and Barack Obama was elected only four years after first coming to the nation’s attention at the 2004 Democratic convention and his debut election as Senator from Illinois.

U.S. President Donald Trump is a manifestation of the same yearning for something new, although, unlike his predecessors, he came to the White House will little experience in politics and none whatsoever in managing large government institutions. Among the other factors that spurred American voters to prefer the novice Trump over the uniquely-qualified Hillary Clinton – besides Russian intervention – are two cultural and technological trends that revolutionized U.S. politics: Reality television, which cherishes the transformation of anonymous nobodies into cultural icons virtually overnight, and social media, which allows candidates to address the public directly and to ignore the existing party apparatus, which many now liken to a dinosaur waiting for extinction.

Gantz represents a fusion of both phenomena. His run for the prime ministership, which evolved this week from a negligible curiosity to a realistic if still improbable scenario, combines the traditional yearning for a savior-general by a society that lives under constant fear of existential threats on the one hand, and the new reality-politik, which seeks out unknown and unfamiliar candidates, on the other. The powerful brew of old aspirations with new realities successfully turned Gantz from a nuisance to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a clear and present danger to his ostensibly inevitable victory in the upcoming April 9 ballot.

Gantz represents a long-standing Israeli tradition of recruiting political leaders from the ranks of senior army officers, a search which, more often than not, has ended in disappointment. Moshe Dayan, arguably the most widely-admired general in Israeli history and the first chief of staff who jumped directly from the army to government, might have pulled off an independent run for president today, but at the end of his military career 60 years ago, Dayan had no choice but to join the rigid Mapai establishment that ruled Israel at the time. Dayan’s supporters actually tried to pull off one of Israel’s first populist uprisings ten years later, following the death of then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, by persuading thousands of Israelis to sign petitions calling on Mapai to appoint Dayan as his successor, but the party functionaries quelled the revolt and anointed the stalwart Golda Meir instead.

One of the reasons for Dayan’s failed bid, which would have made him the first Israeli-born prime minister, was his decision a few years earlier to follow David Ben-Gurion, who had split off from Mapai to form his independent Rafi party. The breach, which is viewed by political scientists as the first stage in the eventual disintegration of Israel’s hitherto strict party rule, yielded only paltry results: Ben-Gurion’s list garnered only ten Knesset seats, proving that even the ambitions of a founding father whose public prestige remains unparalleled to this day were bound to crash against the hard rock of party control.

Dayan is only one of no less than 11 former army chiefs, half of the 22 who have manned the post, who aspired to turn their military fame into political success. Most were stopped on their way to the top, with the exception of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, who joined Mapai’s successor, Labor, and were elected prime minister. Ariel Sharon, the controversial army general that Mapai declined to appoint as chief of staff only to have Menachem Begin give him the defense portfolio in 1981 and the Israeli public elect him prime minister two decades later, belongs on this coveted and short list as well. 

But even these three successful bids only came about after a trial run in politics: Sharon waited no less than 28 years after his retirement from active duty before becoming prime minister; Rabin spent six years as a civilian, mainly as Israel's ambassador to Washington, before being selected by Labor to replace Meir in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and Ehud Barak, the current record holder for shortest time span between IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, nonetheless waited four years before defeating Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.

If Gantz achieves the currently unbelievable and defeats Netanyahu in the April 9 election, he would be the first to make the conversion from top officer to top office with no political experience whatsoever. The very fact that Israel started this week, in the wake of his successful campaign launch, to conceive his run as anything less than mission impossible is a clear sign that Israelis still believe in their generals. It is also an indication that they are still addicted to centrist parties – “Neither left or right,” as the slogan of Gantz's Hosen L’Yisrael proudly proclaims – despite the less than impressive historical record of similar bids by former Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin in 1977 and Amnon Shahak in 1999, as well as what critics portray as the disappointing eight years of non-general Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which Gantz now threatens to decimate anyway.

Gantz’s spectacular emergence as Netanyahu’s number one rival is a product of months of widely panned silence about his positions, followed by Tuesday’s single, albeit meticulously planned and executed, televised campaign launch at Tel Aviv’s Exhibition Gardens. His spectacular surge in the polls in the days since has taken experts and analysts by surprise. The commentators were united in the universal belief that Netanyahu is invincible, just as they were in 1999 when predicting Barak’s inevitable defeat at the hands of the politically savvy Netanyahu, the grandmaster of political campaigns and still-unrivaled champion of polished appearances on television. They failed to account for what Barak himself coined the “cherry blossom” effect, which saw droves of voters flock to his side in the last month before the May 1999 ballot.

The conventional wisdom that, in addition to the absence of any practical political experience, Gantz lacks the charisma needed to tackle Netanyahu has now been cast into doubt, along with the nearly consensual perception that only a combined front that unites all the parties opposed to Netanyahu could overcome his built-in and overpowering right-wing majority. As things seem now, however, the so-called anti-Netanyahu “bloc” is already standing, at least in the eyes of the voting public, waiting to anoint its leader and to replenish itself with a hope that seemed long gone. All that was needed in order to consolidate the anti-Netanyahu coalition was a handsome and likable former chief of staff like Gantz, who is apparently tailoring his positions to best capture some of Netanyahu’s supposedly impenetrable base.

Gantz’s ascent metes out poetic justice to Netanyahu, who seized power swiftly by the standards that existed 25 years ago, by virtue of his political acumen and his undeniable rhetorical skills. Netanyahu was also one of the first Israeli politicians to harness the power of social media to bypass what he considers a hostile media out to get him. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is a creature of the 20th century who suddenly seems vulnerable to the new realities of the 21st. The mentality of reality shows is even more pervasive in Israel than it is in the United States. It instills in the voting public a preference for unknowns who can be quickly turned into mega-celebrities, at the expense of well-known personalities who quickly wear out their welcome, no matter how talented.

In American terms, Gantz represents a mix of old-time admiration for affable generals, like Eisenhower, with the revolutionary ability of outsider populists, such as Trump, to confound the old order and conquer politics by virtue of personality and Twitter rather than political clout. Trump, nonetheless, achieved his success only after he conquered the old guard GOP and rode on its back all the way to the White House; Gantz is banking on a party created out of thin air with a platform that includes nothing more than his curriculum vitae.

Gantz chose the right time and the right way to burst into the public limelight and cast himself, contrary to expectations, as Netanyahu’s main nemesis. The question now is whether he is capable of maintaining and accelerating his new momentum throughout the 67 days that remain before Israelis head to the polls, despite the right’s increasingly hysterical onslaught, which is bound to get worse as his situation improves in the polls. Gantz’s blooming coincides with the start of the widely-revered cherry blossom season in Japan, which brings nature’s stern warning: The blossom lasts for a short two to three weeks before the flowers fall and the cherry trees revert to their usual and uninspiring drabness. Netanyahu and his supporters are praying that the analogy applies to reality in full and that Gantz will soon discover that his cherries have bloomed prematurely, failing to yield the sweet fruit he and his new admirers so crave.