Benny Gantz should blow his top more often. The usually sedate former chief of staff had smoke coming out of his ears at a Tel Aviv press conference on Wednesday night, in which he savaged Benjamin Netanyahu for committing what Gantz described as a “hate crime” against Israeli society and democracy. Gantz accused Netanyahu of trying to lie and cheat his way to victory, including plans to interfere with voting on Election Day.
It was one of Gantz’s most powerful public appearances since entering politics a year ago, but was unlikely to be seen by most Israelis. The prime time evening news shows opted to ignore Gantz in favor of feeding public hysteria about the coronavirus; a legitimate editorial decision, perhaps, but one that is somehow rarely reached when it is Netanyahu that needs to be ignored.
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Gantz was compelled to deviate from his hitherto passive and placid campaigning in order to try and stop the recent surge of Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls – in Israel’s paralyzed politics, every minute movement from side to side is considered a “surge” – and the parallel decline of Kahol Lavan’s standing. His undeniable chagrin, however, reflected Gantz’s genuine outrage, shared by his colleagues, at having his name persistently dragged through Netanyahu’s dirty spin machine of lies, libels, personal insults and sexual innuendo.
Over the past few days, Netanyahu has accused Gantz of corruption in the now-dissolved Fifth Dimension company he once headed, without offering a scintilla of evidence to back his claim. The prime minister also revived the tall tales his own campaign disseminated before the April 2019 elections about Gantz being prone to extortion of Iran, because of allegedly embarrassing information recovered from his hacked phone.
By sheer coincidence – what else could it be? – a journalist closely associated with Netanyahu, Yoav Yitzhak, published a sensational “scoop” by which Gantz’s hacked phone reportedly contained videos of the former chief of staff gratifying himself sexually in the nude. People who know Gantz can’t decide whether to burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of the thought, or cry over Netanyahu’s deteriorating debasement of Israeli politics. When Netanyahu goes low, he then goes lower.
Increasingly afraid to confront Netanyahu directly, most media commentators criticized Likud’s rampant slime slinging but noted, “Both sides are playing dirty.” A Kahol Lavan video showed Turkish strongman Recep Tayip Erdogan delivering a speech as Netanyahu is heard making one of his staple attacks against his police investigators and state prosecutors. It was cast as commensurate with the vicious, vile and unprecedented character assassination to which Gantz has been subjected over the past year, as have most other Netanyahu rivals throughout his political career.
Feeling himself drowning in a sea of lies, Gantz lashed out at Netanyahu with uncharacteristic anger and resentment. He was animated, forceful, and even emotional. If he would have harnessed his inner rage earlier in the campaign, Gantz might have warded off the creeping doubts about his judgment generated by Likud’s harm offensive. He might have spared his center-left backers the outbreak of anxiety and the pandemic of despondency that have depressed them in recent days, as the polls change course in Netanyahu’s direction, away from Gantz.
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Kahol Lavan’s slow descent in the polls has also shattered the hitherto idyllic peace inside the center-left camp. Even though both past and recent experience has proven that it is the overall size of the political bloc that determines who gets first crack at forming a government, rather than the relative size of the two biggest parties, both Gantz and Netanyahu aren’t taking any risks.
Both are now trying maximize their parties’ potential on election day by “cannibalizing” support from their respective ideological partners on the left and right. As Gantz and Netanyahu bombard each other with both conventional and unconventional weapons, their troops are concurrently firing on their own.
Gantz and his advisers believe that while Netanyahu’s arsenal of slurs, slanders, falsehoods and fabrications is effective in inflaming the right wing base and infecting it with the virus of venom, wavering voters on the center right are repelled by the prime minister’s underhanded tactics. Kahol Lavan strategists hope that Gantz’s unusual display of righteous indignation can entice such undecided voters to vote Kahol Lavan. Nothing would please Gantz more than to see Netanyahu hoisted on his own putrid petard, though you shouldn’t hold your breath.
One thing seems certain: Whatever the results of Monday’s ballot, they won’t dispel the mushrooming mutual animosity between the two political camps and their increasingly divergent perceptions of reality. If the intensifying personal feud between Netanyahu and Gantz is a harbinger of the things to come, we ain’t seen nothing yet: This road leads directly into the abyss.