Analysis

Gantz, the Former General, Will Have Trouble Commanding His Political Soldiers

Sooner or later, the knives will come out at Kahol Lavan

File photo: Benny Gantz prepares to huddle with his party candidates following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

Kahal Lavan co-leader Benny Gantz proved a more effective candidate than Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni did in 2015. He also scored a quite impressive result, and in record time – 10 weeks after he entered the political waters, just six weeks after uniting his slate with that of Yair Lapid. And he withstood honorably an aggressive, ugly campaign against him mounted by Likud, which had no qualms about hitting below the belt.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 22Haaretz

But at present this also looks like the glass ceiling for Gantz and for the whole center-left. The coming months will pull Gantz far away from his comfort zone. Lapid has promised to make Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s life miserable from the opposition benches, but Gantz, despite his military past, isn’t gung-ho about spearheading political battles, on the one hand, or very good at imposing authority, on the other hand.

>> Israel election: Netanyahu celebrates his Bibistan as the left wakes up to the dawn of an old and darker day | Analysis

The vows of unity among the party’s leaders should be taken with a dose of skepticism. Each of the three who follow him on the Kahol Lavan slate apparently thinks that he is better suited than Gantz to lead the party. Sooner or later, the knives will be unsheathed, as they always are. For fans of the genre, this promises to be no less interesting than watching a lion devour an antelope in the savanna on the National Geographic channel.

In addition to the composition of the coalition, the weeks ahead will see the assignment of the three ranking ministerial portfolios in Netanyahu’s new government: defense, finance and foreign affairs. Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu would seem to be a natural candidate for the Defense Ministry, after surprising the pollsters and analysts by crossing the electoral threshold again. Much of his party’s campaign dealt with preserving the interests of its constituents – families who immigrated from the former Soviet Union – in the face of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishments. Lieberman will now have to show them concrete achievements, in a government in which the Haredi parties are likely to be stronger and more dominant than in the past. This will also very likely be a major issue in the negotiations he will conduct with Netanyahu.

The two-and-a-half years Lieberman spent in the Defense Ministry before his resignation last November were tense and frustrating for him. His main point of friction with Netanyahu was over the handling of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At present, as already noted, the prime minister does not seem about to depart from his policy of restraint in the south. It’s also doubtful that Netanyahu wants to upgrade substantially the roles of any of the Likud ministers, even though some of them (Yoav Gallant, Yisrael Katz) would certainly be happy to get the nod. In the end, then, Netanyahu might decide to retain the defense portfolio for himself. That poses the risk of a loss of the protective layer between him and taking responsibility for any security hitches that might occur, but there are many advantages to maintaining a direct link with the Israel Defense Forces (in addition to the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the National Security Council, all of which are directly accountable to the prime minister).

The General Staff, at any rate, is waiting with diminishing patience for the defense portfolio to be filled. Aviv Kochavi took over as chief of staff three months ago. Many of the moves he’s planning are dependent on the diversion of existing and additional budgets and on the approval of the political authorities. They deal with issues that Netanyahu’s preoccupation with the intensive election campaign hasn’t left him time to consider. The IDF achieved the goal set for it by the prime minister: to prevent a serious flare-up in the Gaza Strip on the eve of the election. Now the General Staff awaits decisions in the months ahead, particularly in regard to the urgent need to upgrade the operational capabilities of the ground forces.