Analysis |

Benny Gantz's Last Chance at a First Impression

On Tuesday, the former IDF chief will have to give the performance of his life ■ A young Likudnik initiated a crowdfunding campaign to fund Netanyahu's legal defense, and so far, the PM hasn't turned it down

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benny Gantz attends a handover ceremony for the incoming Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, at the Defense ministry in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019.
Benny Gantz attends a handover ceremony for the incoming Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, at the Defense ministry in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019. Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Maybe it was a mistake by Benny Gantz’s people to have announced in advance the exact time of the silent general’s opening campaign speech (this coming Tuesday at 8 P.M.). Maybe it would have been better to have prepared the site in secret and attack from close range, as the paratrooper says, with just a few hours’ warning. Prime Minister and Defense Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his hands on a great many levers by means of which he can rain on Gantz’s parade. If he so desires, he can wrest the prime-time live broadcast away from Gantz.

About eight minutes – that’s what the head of the Hosen L’Yisrael party is hoping to steal from the main evening news broadcasts. This length of time is, it’s been said, Gantz’s one and only opportunity to make a first impression. He will have to give the performance of his life. He will have to be sharp, assertive, convincing, captivating. Not vague, not bleh, not clichéd. He will have to give answers to the major questions on the public agenda: the investigations of the prime minister, the effect of an indictment, the volatile situation in the north and the south. The less he talks about his military past, the better. Everyone knows he was chief of staff. And on no account must he appear wearing khaki, or on a background of khaki, the ugliest and most depressing color in the world.

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In the past, when he was feeling liberated after he retired from the army, he spoke about the “corpse in the room” in the context of Harpaz’s resignation and this expression caught on. That’s the way he needs to talk on Tuesday. A huge camp of undecided and frustrated voters will be watching him. If the surveys the next day don’t show a big gain for him, he might not have another opportunity.

The number of seats the surveys are predicting for him, between 12 and 15, is respectable but not nearly enough to take him into the prime minister’s bureau. Maybe the leader of the opposition’s office or the defense minister’s office on the 14th floor of the Kirya in Tel Aviv. In order to magnify the effect of his entrance, in addition to a polished speech Gantz should also present a political achievement: Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Ya’alon, Orli Levi-Abekasis, two of them or all three.

A minute after he goes off the air an artillery barrage aimed at him will begin, carpet bombing from the right mainly, but also from the left. No matter what he says, even if he sings the Beitar anthem, he will be denounced, derided and deplored by members of Likud, the Knesset members and the cabinet ministers, who will be contending in the party primaries a week later. They will stop at nothing, if only they are allowed to come on the air and “respond.”

If Gantz’s advisers know what they are doing, they will certainly watch together with him a similar event from about two decades ago, when Lt. Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak delivered his maiden political speech at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv. That was the start of the downfall of the former chief of staff who wanted to be prime minister and ended up as the tourism minister in Ehud Barak’s short-lived government.

A working memorial

A long line of official cars jammed the paths of the cemetery in Ra’anana on Thursday afternoon. It was a very cold and rainy day. The sky was cloudy and a strong wind blew. Near a certain tombstone, some 100 shivering men and women were huddled, some of them familiar faces.

A partial list: ministers Ofir Akunis, Zeev Elkin, Gila Gamliel, Ayoub Kara, Tzachi Hanegbi and Yoav Gallant, former minister Gideon Saar and Knesset members David Amsalem, Amir Ohana, Nava Boker and Avi Dichter. Altogether, about one-third of the Likud faction in the Knesset and in addition, about 20 other men and women who are running in the primaries for the party’s slate in less than two weeks, on February 5.

What brought them there in the midst of that exhausting race? It was the annual memorial ceremony to mark the 11th anniversary of the death of one of the most prominent and colorful field activists in the history of Likud, Uzi Cohen. The deceased’s brother Ilan Cohen is also a major Likud activist and the member of the municipal council.

About 10 lawmakers and ministers saw fit to accept Ilan Cohen’s invitation and showed up at the cemetery, among them some who never knew the deceased. Gallant and Dichter, for example. The former was the head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command when Cohen passed away suddenly at the age of 55. Where exactly could they have met? At general staff meetings? In the Bunker? Dichter was minister of public security on behalf of the Kadima party in 2008. It is doubtful that he ever encountered Cohen in the senior general command forum of the police or in the cabinet, or prior to that at operational meetings he held at the Shin Bet security service as head of that organization.

Neither they nor the veteran Likudniks who did know Uzi Cohen up close came there to pay their respects to the deceased. They came because his brother has clout among party members. None of them would want to find his or her name on the blacklist of a key activist like Ilan Cohen. We’ll see how many of them show up at the cemetery in January 18, 2020, when the coming primaries will have receded into the mists of the past.

The ceremony took a long time. One after another, the dignitaries were invited to speak. No one was omitted. Akunis emotionally recalled how he, as the spokesman of party chairman and leader of the opposition at the time Benjamin Netanyahu, had to enter his room and inform him of the bitter news of the activist’s passing. Few among us remember where we were when we heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination; many more of us remember where we were when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in the city square. Akunis will never forget what he was doing and how he acted like as grief-stricken automaton when he heard that Uzi was no more.

The 10 Knesset members and ministers clustered near the gravesite on January 17. Way above the number of Likud representatives who bother to come to memorials for leaders no less important than Uzi Cohen. Like a certain Menachem Begin, or that one, nu, Yitzhak Shamir. The presence of politicians at their memorials is very sparse. They don’t have the right brothers.

Life-saving charity

The crowdfunding underway these days to raise money to pay for Netanyahu’s expensive legal defense isn’t the suspect’s initiative, insofar as is known. This is a primaries gimmick dreamt up by a fellow called Moshiko Pasal, who is running for a spot on the Likud slate for the Knesset in the number 32 slot reserved for youngsters. As of Thursday afternoon, about 60,000 shekels had been raised from about 200 donors.

The stated goal: 1 million shekels, by March 5.

This initiative to appeal to the public – which at the time of writing these lines Netanyahu has not halted – encapsulates the whole story. The prime minister is a millionaire whose wealth and assets were estimated in the past at tens of millions of shekels. His future earning potential, as a private citizen, is also estimated at tens of millions of shekels. And he is looking on from the sidelines while rank and file citizens are typing in their credit card numbers on the fundraising site, for his sake and also perhaps for hers.

This is a couple who found it difficult, psychologically and physically to pay for their pleasures and amusements and luxuries and demanded wealthier men to pick up the tab. This is how Case 1000 was born, the gifts and perks case, the Champagne and cigars worth about 700,0000 shekels ($16,300).

This is the woman who complains all the time about the scandalous living conditions to which the family is condemned in the prime minister’s residence that the public funds for her; a shabby, leaky and crumbling house that is not fit for their majesties. This is how the residences case was born, in which the lady whose parsimonious machinations only a great playwright like Molière could describe is accused. And now the time has come for crowdfunding.

Will Netanyahu really dare to use the money that is raised? Back in the day we’d say: Ah, that’s unthinkable. But in the current era the unthinkable is happening before our astounded eyes.

The couple from Balfour Street, who get heart palpitations from the thought of paying for anything out of their own pockets, are definitely capable of doing this. In their view, the public exists in order to serve them. The masses and the weaker classes on whose back Netanyahu and Likud mount to power time after time (because the left, as everyone knows, is elitist and arrogant) are intended for funding their needs. Let them donate and say thank you for the privilege.

On Thursday afternoon, I asked Pasal whether he had heard anything from Netanyahu or on his behalf – whether he had been asked to cancel the initiative. “I think the prime minister’s lawyers were in touch with the site,” he said. I asked whether it’s fair to ask ordinary people who are not worth tens of million of shekels to fund the defense of a serial bribery suspect who owns three homes and no doubt also savings accounts.
Pasal replied with a question: “Is it fair to ask Netanyahu to sell an apartment in order to pay for his lawyers?” I did not have an answer.

I asked him if he himself had already donated. “In just a little while I am going to,” he said.

“How much” I asked. “Five hundred shekels?”

He thought for a moment: “One hundred,” he said.

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