The alternative took the stage at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, looked Benjamin Netanyahu in the eye and didn’t lower his gaze. For the first time in a decade, the opposition has someone with authority and military experience — the issue that has hitherto given Netanyahu his decisive advantage over his rivals — to run against the prime minister.
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One can fantasize about a civic, social agenda, about a government that will focus on education, traffic jams, the price of cottage cheese and the state of the hospitals. But at the moment of truth, Israel needs a leader who won’t lose his cool under fire. And Benny Gantz is more convincing than the others about his ability to meet this challenge.
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Gantz’s successful appearance wiped out Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay, who until Tuesday were claiming the leadership of the anti-Netanyahu camp. It’s not just the military and diplomatic experience that he has and they don’t, but also Gantz’s biting, right-on-target criticism of the prime minister, his family, his court, his billionaire friends and his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. Lapid and Gabbay never managed to hone such a message, and they erred by aiming embarrassing and pointless winks at rightists and religious people.
Six years ago, when Gantz was the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, I wrote that he aroused nostalgia for the Israel of the 1960s — secular, cohesive and viewing the IDF as a sacred organization. That’s precisely the message he conveyed Tuesday night, almost in those very words.
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He didn’t invent anything. The state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, nurtured a leadership that moved from the kibbutz or moshav farm to a military career and then into national politics. Examples include Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak. Gantz passed through those same stations, as did Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz’s new partner in his Hosen L’Yisrael party.
Or to put in the language of Netanyahu and his cronies, the old elite is once again storming the centers of power that it lost over the last four years under the pure-right government of Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev. That’s the story in a nutshell.
There’s no doubt that Gantz sees himself as a successor to his historic commanders, and would cast himself as the star in “Exodus,” with a new soundtrack by Arik Einstein and Naomi Shemer. He’s a man who came from the plow and the tractor, who sings “Jerusalem of Gold” and “We Are from the Same Village” without any fakery, who is satiated with ceremonies at military cemeteries, with their recitations of the “El Maleh Rahamim” prayer and Nathan Alterman’s poem “The Silver Platter.”
But nostalgia isn’t enough to win the election, and even a promising, confidence-inspiring first appearance isn’t sufficient. To beat Netanyahu, Gantz will have to take a crash course in politics. He’ll have to field a team with well-known names; unite Yesh Atid and the Labor Party and perhaps even Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, under his wings; and include women, young people and Mizrahim in his party’s leadership.
If his party looks like a branch of Tzevet, the association of retirees from the career army, or if it makes the mistakes that have characterized other generals taking their first steps in politics, he’ll disappear as quickly as he arrived. There aren’t enough buyers today for the merchandise of the historic Mapai party, which founded the state, if it isn’t freshened up.
Gantz will also have to persuade voters that he’s truly hungry to become prime minister, and not just looking for enough Knesset seats to join a Likud-led government as defense minister after the election.
Nevertheless, as several recent polls have shown, Gantz is the first person whom the Israeli public has viewed as a possible successor to Netanyahu. His performance Tuesday night merely reinforced this impression.