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With a Prime-ministerial Look, Benny Gantz Went for Netanyahu’s Jugular

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Ex-Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz launching his election campaign in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019.
Ex-Israel Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz launching his election campaign in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

He looks prime-ministerial — presidential by American standards. He also has the trappings of a retired army chief of staff. At 1.95 meters in height (nearly 6 foot 5), he's hard to ignore and stands out among other politicians. He doesn't have the mechanical, exaggerated mannerisms of Benjamin Netanyahu or the prime minister's twin, Yair Lapid — and that’s good.

The jabs that Hosen L'Yisrael party leader Benny Gantz directed at Netanyahu on Tuesday night in his maiden policy speech came as a surprise to Gantz's own acquaintances. The former army chief of staff highlighted his own statesmanship and promised a statesmanlike government rather than a monarchy when — or if — he becomes prime minister. Gantz, whose statements up to now had been vague and general, who met with people who would leave not understanding what he was getting at, went for the jugular on Tuesday.

He likened the occupants of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem to “a French royal court.” He said the “government looms over the people and finds the people to be a bore.” He accused the government of stoking fears rather than calming the public.

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“This will be a government without masters and servants, no obscene gifts and no court clowns,” he added. He described things clearly, as if foreseeing the rants of Miri Regev, the queen of the courtyard clowns and of the prime minister’s sycophants.

The way he talked about the prospect that Netanyahu would be indicted was a bit strange. “The very thought that an Israeli prime minister who has been indicted could be in office is ridiculous to me. This cannot happen,” he said. From that, one might understand that Gantz would allow Netanyahu to serve, perhaps as a member of Gantz's cabinet, until the end of a pre-indictment hearing (or maybe even until a ruling by the High Court of Justice?).

In the process, Gantz is lining up with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, but is placing himself to the right of Labor's Avi Gabbay, Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid and Hatnuah's Tzipi Livni. In general, Gantz's remarks did not diverge much from the attacks from the ranks of the opposition by Gabbay, Lapid or Livni. But as expressed by Gantz, they sounded more authentic and provoked less disdain and skepticism.

Benny Gantz greeting supporters at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, January 29, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

We have grown used to the others. We've had our fill of some of them. They are polished politicians who have had enough time to disappoint.

Gantz is the new kid in town. He still provides the prospect of hope, of a future, of a dream for many.

Gantz’s speech included several comments related to diplomacy and defense. For the time being, he heads the only party to the right of Livni that has promised to “strive for peace,” but he said if that doesn't work, Israel would manage to get along on its own and to strengthen the West Bank settlement blocs. In other words, he would give up the isolated settlements that are a burden rather than a security asset.

Based on his ranks and the tens of thousands of Arabs that he has eliminated, he felt sufficiently self-confident to make a statement that included that offensive word, peace. But he was careful not to go too far.

He didn't mention a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. His bravery only goes so far. Perhaps he believes in it, but in the reality of today’s Israel, it wouldn't behoove someone seeking to present himself as a center-right figure to step on such a landmine.

The manner in which he made reference to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and other evildoers in our region, such as Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and the late Hamas chief Ahmed Ja’abari, was a bit childish. Generals, it turns out, remain generals, even in a pressed suit on an American-style set.

Gantz came to Pavilion 10 at the Tel Aviv Convention Center hours after signing a merger agreement with his former commander, former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who recently formed the Telem party. The man who was defense minister when Gantz was chief of staff is bringing two future Knesset members with him to the top 10 of their joint slate: former Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and former Netanyahu spokesman and journalist Yoaz Hendel.

The three are all dedicated, ideological right-wingers who support the settlements and oppose a Palestinian state. They are meant to provide cover from Likud’s attacks.

The Hosen L'Yisrael slate will have other people from the soft right too. Orli Levi-Abekasis, whose Gesher party has been hovering around the minimum support necessary for Knesset representation in recent polls, will probably be one of them. Gabi Ashkenazi, the second former army chief of staff on Gantz’s shopping list, does not exude leftist ideology either, based on the stereotypes we have grown used to.

In general, Gantz passed Tuesday’s night’s test with flying colors. Likud officials have started feeling the pressure. The very fact that a politician who is not Netanyahu got to be on live, prime-time television on all the major channels, got on their nerves. They didn’t expect the assault that Gantz directed at the prime minister, at his government and his family.

The pressure is such that the Likud official response mentioned the word “left” six times. There was nothing leftist in Gantz’s speech. He was as centrist as could be.

That’s it. The lights went on, the silence was broken, the man spoke, quite a lot, and managed to make it home unscathed. From now on, he is part of the political swamp.

Momentum is the magic word. He has to put distance between himself and Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid and to increase the gap in the coming weeks to become the only alternative to Netanyahu. That's the toughest of missions. Another moment of grace like Tuesday won’t repeat itself.

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