An aspiring Israeli politician in the age of Netanyahu has two alternative courses of action. He (it’s usually a he) can choose to emulate the prime minister and be a WannaBibi, putting the emphasis on bombastic public performances, on the stage and in interviews, and pretend to have the mega-star-statesman capabilities that have built the Netanyahu myth. Or they can choose to be an anti-Bibi, dial down the histrionics, focus on presenting actual policies and differentiate themselves from Netanyahu’s entire style of leadership.
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Benny Gantz cannot afford to choose one or the other. He is running for the prime minister’s job as a centrist who needs right-wing votes to win. His base wants him to be an anti-Bibi, but to beat Bibi, he has no choice but to try and prove that he can be Bibi as well. He has no choice but to try and be both. His problem is that unlike the original, who is a devastatingly effective populist in public, but can be a policy wonk in private, when needed, Gantz is simply not disposed to bombast and populism. Over the last year, his first in politics, he has gotten better at the technical sides of retail politics. But he still cannot convince anyone that it comes to him naturally.
In an interview broadcast on Saturday on Channel 13, presenter Hila Korach said that “you look much less hungry than Netanyahu,” to which Gantz countered – “I’m very hungry, very happy with what I’m doing,” with all the enthusiasm a man his age normally has for undergoing a colonoscopy. It was the least honest bit in any of the five nearly-identical interviews Gantz gave this weekend.
After long months of not speaking with journalists on the record, Gantz finally broke his silence and sat down with five interviewers, in quick succession, at the same desk, wearing the same tie and for equal periods of time each (12 minutes). He said absolutely nothing that was new or news-worthy. In a way, that was an achievement. Gantz’s sudden blitz of interviews took place for one reason only – Netanyahu began his own blitz a couple of days earlier and the Kahol Lavan campaign cannot allow him to dominate the airwaves without a response.
But timing is the only thing the Netanyahu and Gantz interviews have in common. While Netanyahu sought out sycophantic broadcasters (on Channel 20, IDF Radio and a local radio station in the north), who did everything they could to showcase his campaign, rather than challenge him, Gantz gave his interviews to professional mainstream channels (11, 12, 13, Ynet and Walla) where the interviewers, while not hostile, were all professional and not looking to give him an easy time.
It’s hard to sum up Gantz’s performance. He didn’t shine. There were no memorable moments or quips that will be quoted in the future. Neither did he falter in any major way, though Likud, which is doing everything it can to show Gantz as stuttering and insubstantial, made much of the one time where he called Channel 12’s Dana Weiss “Dafna” by mistake, and another moment when he said the election was in April instead of March. Being grilled by five serious interviewers in quick succession is, and should be, an ordeal for any politician, and Gantz has no reason to be ashamed of the result. Except that the man who wants to be Israel’s next prime minister should be expected to offer something a bit more.
It’s impossible to say whether Gantz did well or badly in the interviews because it wasn’t clear who he was trying to be. There were elements there of Netanyahu; the fake prime-ministerial study as a stage, the uncomfortable suit and tie, the meticulous preparation and rehearsed sound-bites. The meaningless slogans. The half-hearted tough talk. But even though his strategists obviously wanted to use these interviews to reassure Israelis, who see Netanyahu as the master-communicator, that their man can do it as well, Gantz simply isn’t that person. Even if he understands why he has to pretend he is, his heart simply is not in it.
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At the same time, Gantz failed to use any of the many opportunities he had in the five interviews to show why he isn’t Netanyahu and why Israelis would be better off with him as a result. “Netanyahu has ended his historic role from a political perspective,” he said, in various variations, but he couldn’t explain in what way Gantz’s Israel would be different, let alone better than Bibi’s. “The public understands that the public is fed up with the situation we’re in,” was the best he could do.
Every time he had a chance to put some real distance between him and Netanyahu, he fell back on meaningless slogans. When the interviewers confronted him with Netanyahu’s claims that the only government he can form will be one with the support of the Arab MKs of the Joint List, he could have explained why for political and ideological reasons, such a government is impractical, but at the same time go on the attack over Netanyahu’s incitement against a community consisting of over twenty percent of Israeli citizens. Instead he parroted his vague commitment to only including parties “that accept Israel as a democratic and Jewish state” in his government.
The one point where he actually seemed to be standing up for Israel’s Arab citizens was when he rejected the section in the Trump Mideast peace plan mentioning the possibility of forcing some of them to become Palestinian citizens. Yet, even there, he couldn’t bring himself to refer to Arab citizens explicitly, saying instead that “Israeli citizens in any place cannot live in another state and no one will be moved against their will.”
On the Trump Plan itself, he said he accepted it “in its generality,” and as “a reference point for going forward.” The long list of empty superlatives he poured on the plan can be compared only to those Netanyahu has issued. But he said nothing of any substance about it, beyond promising that he would first try and implement it “in coordination” with the Palestinians and the Arab states, drawing justified derision from the interviewers.
To Walla’s Tal Shalev, he tried to claim that “there is a very high correlation between Kahol Lavan’s platform and what is in the Trump plan.” Likewise when he spoke of his plans for Gaza, he managed to be both vague and unconvincingly bombastic. If Hamas will not keep the peace and return the bodies of Israeli soldiers, “the fear of the IDF will actively return to the Gaza Strip,” he told Ynet’s Attila Shumfalvi.
Gantz’s best moment in the interviews was when he discussed his plan for reforming the health system with Channel 13’s Korach (who managed in the confines of 12 minutes to get the most out of him). Not that he had time to go into that many specifics, but for a few moments he seemed to be capable of making clear statements regarding his plans. This was one issue on which he didn’t feel he needed to match Netanyahu in any way.
I’ve met Gantz before in scenarios where he wasn’t running for office and didn’t need to prove himself. He was an IDF general and his uniform, rank and position gave him then whatever credibility he needed. I can’t say that the pre-politics Gantz had sparkling charisma. He didn’t and that was fine. He came over as an intelligent, competent and slightly boring technocrat. He managed to be articulate, without being eloquent. He gave the impression of having a strong set of moral principles, without the need to actually speak out about them. What he didn’t convey, then and now, was whether he would also act upon those principles.
All he convinced us of in the last round of interviews was that no matter how much he rehearses sound-bites with his media-handlers, they will never quite trip off his tongue. He got the answers for the predictable questions right. When asked whether he would debate Netanyahu, he answered that “Netanyahu’s next debate is with the witnesses in court” - but he still managed to repeatedly get the order of the indictments against the prime minister wrong. In his one moment of honesty, when asked by Korach if he was easily pressured, he answered “look, I’m the one who was known in the army as ‘Benihuta (laidback Benny). They criticize me for not being politically violent, for not being rude, not being aggressive.” Off-guard for a second, Gantz was happy to admit that those are good things.
Gantz’s interviews are acknowledgment that whether he wins or loses, he will be doing so on Netanyahu’s terms. Netanyahu has defined for a generation what a winning politician looks like and Gantz lacks the talents to redefine the role. One questions remains, which no interview can answer: Can he still govern as someone different?