Analysis Gantz’s Sleeper Campaign Could Be the Secret Weapon That Fells Netanyahu

Give the prime minister enough rope, so the logic goes, and he could wind up hanging himself

Benny Gantz at a Kahol Lavan meeting in the Knesset, August 10, 2019.
Emil Salman

The campaign of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party currently seems like the weakest in Israeli history – and there’s not much chance that it will get any stronger in the less than two weeks left before the September 17 election.

Gantz & Co. don’t have a clear or unified message, besides their shared opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu. From the moment the party was set up in early 2019, and doubly so in the aftermath of the April 9 elections, Kahol Lavan leaders have spent far more time and effort on moles, leaks, investigations and internal bickering than on waging the kind of aggressive campaign many of their voters yearn for.

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Kahol Lavan’s flaccidity is compounded by the broad public exposure to Gantz’s deficiencies. He may have been a superb army chief of staff and could very well prove an excellent prime minister, but as a politician and candidate, Gantz appears to be failing miserably. His positions are amorphous, his oratory monotonous and his charisma sorely lacking. He has shown a disconcerting tendency, possibly stemming from shyness and anxiety, to make embarrassing slips of the tongue.

Unlike Netanyahu, a vital and energetic candidate who will stop at nothing, Gantz often seems as if his candidacy was foisted upon him against his will. If lust for power burns brightly in Netanyahu’s belly, in Gantz's it’s hard to discern even a spark of enthusiasm. If Netanyahu is the once-famous Energizer bunny, Gantz often seems like a rabbit roaming the highway late at night, its eyes transfixed by the headlights of the car about to run him down.

If Netanyahu has nurtured and fostered a cult of personality, Gantz seems to broadcast staid stability to an Israeli public addicted to excitement and controversy. If right-wing voters will trouble themselves to head to the polls on September 17 because of Netanyahu, many of their center-left counterparts will vote for Kahol Lavan despite Gantz. Netanyahu excites his followers, speaks to their hearts and rallies them around the flag – and, increasingly, around himself – while Gantz remains distant and aloof to the point of indifference. In terms of the politics Israelis have come to know, it is an uneven match and, consequently, one with an inevitable outcome.

Even though the polls are registering a slight drop from the 35 seats Kahol Lavan garnered in the April election, the party remains, for the most part, steady and strong in a neck-and-neck race with Netanyahu’s Likud. The prime minister's efforts to paint Gantz as unqualified if not unfit to serve as prime minister have met limited success, at best.

Despite the supposedly unpopular rotation agreement between Gantz and his number two Yair Lapid, and notwithstanding the widespread assumption that Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz’s predecessor as army chief, would have fared far better, Gantz and Kahol Lavan are still the only viable alternatives to Netanyahu and Likud, at least as a default option. This may be despite – or possibly because of – the party’s virtually non-existent election campaign.

There is a certain logic in the seeming contradiction. The cardinal question in the September 17 election, after all, isn’t Netanyahu or Gantz, as the right insists, but Netanyahu, yes or no. Against this backdrop, by accident or design, Kahol Lavan’s limp campaign may be ideal: It vacates center stage to the main actor Netanyahu, forcing him to fend off his myriad allegations, investigations and potential indictments for corruption all by himself. Give him enough rope, so the logic holds, and he’ll hang himself.

Thus, despite the apparent disparity in his political skills and talents, time may be working in Gantz’s favor. His ostensibly lifeless campaign may turn out to be a “sleeper,” as the experts term it, in which ostensibly unconvincing arguments accumulate in the public’s consciousness into a decisive factor. The phenomenon echoes Ehud Barak’s famous “cherry blossom” effect, in which the public’s sentiments ripened unseen and unheard only to burst out into the open just before Election Day two decades ago.

The original “sleeper” label, however, fits Gantz like a glove. If he is elected prime minister, contrary to most current expectations, it will be seen in the future as the secret to his success.