Part I: A Soldier of History
Most old generals like to recall the commands they held and wars and operations they fought in. Benny Gantz has plenty of those, but prefers to talk about his brushes with history.
In interviews he brings up the fact that his first mission as a young conscript in 1977 was as part of the security detail for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s groundbreaking visit to Israel. Or that in 1991 he commanded the commando unit that was on the ground in Addis Ababa for 36 hours, securing the Operation Solomon airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Or that in 2000, when the IDF ended 18 continuous years of military presence in Lebanon, he was the last soldier to cross the border and shut the gates.
Gantz frequently mentions his late mother, Malka, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp who told him during one of the Gaza operations he commanded that she wouldn’t go to the bomb shelters because she had seen worse things – and exhorted him to “continue fighting, but don’t stop sending them [the Gazans] food.”
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That message was all but absent in the short clips released by his campaign showcasing the death and destruction on Gen. Gantz’s watch in Gaza: The targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in 2012; the 6,231 Hamas targets hit; the 1,364 terrorists killed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Just to make sure no one can accuse the general of being a limp-wristed “leftist” – kryptonite in modern Israeli politics.
Benny Gantz isn’t just any former chief of staff. Even out of uniform, at 59, with his commanding height, patrician bearing and gray-blue eyes, he’s still the general from central casting.
The polls – both those in the media and the internal polling carried out by his campaign team – have established that Gantz is on the brink of a rare opportunity: For the first time in over a decade, a candidate is within striking distance of Benjamin Netanyahu in the all-important “suitability for prime minister” polls.
Four years ago, when for long stretches of the campaign Likud was languishing in the polls, Netanyahu still led by over 20 percentage points when it came to the question of suitability for prime minister. Gantz, on the other hand, is trailing Netanyahu by only three percentage points (41-38) in a recent poll – practically a dead heat.
His awkwardly named party, Hosen L'Yisrael (Resilience for Israel), is at present not an actual political party. The small team of friends who have taken time off from their jobs and the professional campaigners hired in recent months resemble one of those high-tech startups or NGOs with which Gantz has been associated since ending his military career in 2015.
Though Gantz has kept shtum, his campaign hasn’t. To slightly balance the warmongering impression, they also released a video clip about “yearning for peace,” showing Israeli prime ministers with Arab leaders (including a sly dig at Netanyahu together with Yasser Arafat), and a voice-over by Gantz saying Israel will “probably” have to continue “sending the children to fight for another 50 years,” but that we have to at least “make things different.”
An old comrade of Gantz’s, who served under him at multiple junctures in their military careers, says of him: “Benny doesn’t like the blood-and-glory style of these videos. That’s not the kind of person he is. But he is the kind of person who lets the experts do their work. He’s disciplined and he’s a team player.”
In 2019 Israel, Benny Gantz is the model candidate to replace Netanyahu. But can he and his team build a campaign and party that will take him all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office?
On Tuesday, 70 days before the Israeli election, he will lose his political virginity and officially launch his campaign, announcing his intention to replace Netanyahu. There’s no risk of him ruining his first impression on Israeli voters: A former IDF chief of staff doesn’t have to make a first impression. He’s already fulfilled the role of stern but benevolent father of the nation. Gantz may be a newcomer to politics, but there’s no need to construct a public image for him.
Part II: A Military Prince
Born in 1959, the only boy among four siblings, Gantz grew up surrounded by Jewish history. His parents had been among a group of Romanian and Hungarian Holocaust survivors who founded a small farming community on the southern Coastal Plain, on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Kastina. They named their new home Kfar Ahim (“Village of Brothers”) after two brothers who had been killed in the just-ended War of Independence.
There was no question for the boys born to the Kfar Ahim survivors: They would all volunteer at age 18 to serve in elite IDF units, and many would stay on as officers. The current transportation minister, Yisrael Katz (four years Gantz's senior), lived on the neighboring homestead, joined the Paratroopers and went on to become an officer. Today, Katz sees himself as a candidate to lead Likud in the post-Netanyahu era, and could soon find himself running against his childhood neighbor.
Gantz himself joined up in 1977 as a paratrooper, and his rise through the ranks was rapid. Within two years he was an officer, and at the age of 28 was a lieutenant colonel commanding a paratrooper battalion. The first decade of his service was spent mainly in Lebanon – initially on reprisal raids against Palestinian bases, and then, from the summer of 1982 when the first Lebanon war began, in the long slog through the “Lebanese mud.”
As a young officer his soldiers still remember a more carefree Gantz – the kind of commander who would “borrow” a bicycle from a backyard in the middle of a long march and ride up and down, encouraging his troops. But as soldiers under his command were killed in Lebanon, his friends detected a creeping sense of moroseness that never quite left him.
Dan Emergui was one of Gantz's radiomen in the Paratroopers and fought by his battalion commander's side for 18 months. Despite the years and ranks between them, “You never felt he acted superior to you,” Emergui recounts. Gantz “knew half of the battalion by name and he never had to raise his voice. Some commanders issue orders. He just asked and people wanted to carry out whatever he said.”
Gantz already had a reputation for not being a forceful commander, but under fire he was decisive and calm.
“I remember at the end of a 36-hour ambush in Lebanon, we were discovered by Hezbollah and came under intense fire,” Emergui recalls. “Benny kept cool, calling in cover from tanks and helicopters. There were more senior officers in the ops center, but they didn’t intervene because they could hear on the radio that everything was under control.”
A few months later, after the first intifada had broken out in Gaza and the West Bank, his battalion was stationed south of Jerusalem. “We were driving through Beit Jala at night and all of a sudden four Molotov cocktails hit our jeep,” says Emergui. “We got out and couldn’t see a soul. Benny wouldn’t let us open fire – not even warning shots. He doesn’t shoot just for the sake of it.”
Over the next 12 years Gantz filled a dazzling array of prominent combat postings in quick succession. These included heading the air force’s elite commando unit, Shaldag, and, following his promotion to full colonel and a stint as commander of a reserve brigade, the regional Hebron (or Judea) Brigade in 1994. This was shortly after the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre in which Dr. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers. For the first time, as the officer entrusted with restoring order to the city, Gantz had to deal with nonmilitary issues. Navigating between the local Israeli settlers and Palestinian representatives, he honed his diplomatic skills. Well-spoken and photogenic, he swiftly became one of the field commanders the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit frequently put in front of the cameras.
His next stop was commander of the regular Paratroopers Brigade – a post always reserved for highfliers. But while Gantz had established himself as the senior generals’ favorite, other officers were not convinced. During this period, one of his staff officers came up with the nickname “Benny-huta,” a sly play on his name and the Hebrew term (originally Aramaic) that can be translated as laid-back, or even leisurely. They attributed his meteoric rise to him being a “prince,” but claimed that he failed to leave much of a mark.
Part III: The Teflon General
Every veteran commander has his fair share of operational successes and failures. What was extraordinary about Benny Gantz’s 38-year military career is how so little of the failure on his watch stuck to him.
His admirers emphasize that he never evaded responsibility, and on a personal level took casualties hard. His diary is packed with annual memorials, for soldiers who died under his command, which he attends assiduously. But it didn’t hinder his rapid progression to the General Staff. When operations in Lebanon were foiled by Hezbollah, Gantz was more likely to be credited for calmly extracting the forces under fire than being criticized by his superiors for operational losses.
The General Staff in those years was dominated by former paratroopers who saw Gantz as their prodigy. His chief patron was Shaul Mofaz, who as brigade commander had promoted him to head Battalion 890. When Mofaz became the IDF’s chief of staff in 1998, Gantz was again promoted to brigadier general and, after only a few months commanding a reserve division, appointed to replace Erez Gerstein – the commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit who was killed by Hezbollah in February 1999.
The Lebanon Liaison Unit was the official title for the command of all Israeli forces operating in the “security zone” in Lebanon, as well as Israel’s proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and Gantz would be its last commander. New Prime Minister Ehud Barak was committed to leaving Lebanon and Gantz had the difficult role of trying to hold the fort during the IDF’s rushed pullback in May 2000, while the SLA crumbled and Hezbollah advanced.
His next post was commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, where he arrived in September 2000 – two days before the second intifada began and all hell broke loose. But seven months later Mofaz promoted him again, this time to the rank of major general. At 41 he was the youngest officer on the General Staff, where he served for nine months as commander of the Northern Corps.
Two months before his own retirement, Mofaz promoted him one more time, to head Northern Command. Gantz’s path to chief of staff, in a matter of years, seemed assured. But the road turned out to be much rockier than anyone expected.
At a widely attended staff seminar, held shortly after the ragged pullback from Lebanon in 2000, Gantz got up on stage and said “I failed.” Some felt he should take responsibility and resign – but not his superior officers. They defended him, saying he had managed a casualty-free withdrawal and shouldn’t be blamed for a Lebanese debacle that had been years in the making.
A similar debate would rage over Gantz’s conduct only months later when the second intifada broke out and Israelis died in two separate incidents in the West Bank – partly due to poor coordination and the inaction of IDF units under Gantz’s command. His critics pointed to his slowness in responding to a rapidly changing situation, with the Palestinian security forces – which had previously cooperated with the IDF – now joining the other armed groups in firing on Israelis.
Orders for more aggressive tactics came from on high. Gantz had little room for maneuver, but he counseled restraint in his conversations with his subordinate brigade and battalion commanders. If he had stayed there much longer, he would almost certainly have been on a collision course with the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who demanded that the IDF go on the offensive. But Mofaz got Gantz out after less than a year and sent him north.
“Gantz had a Teflon quality his entire career – no failure stopped his career,” says one senior officer, adding: “Other people paid the price. He never did.”
Part IV: An Accidental Appointment
Gantz’s successor at Northern Command, Udi Adam, would take the blame and resign after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, followed by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. But Gantz had already been waylaid. The appointment of combat pilot Halutz as IDF chief of staff in 2005 brought the paratrooper ascendancy to an end. Halutz's patron, Sharon, preferred more gung-ho generals, and Gantz’s laid-back reputation was finally catching up with him.
After Northern Command, he hoped to become head of Military Intelligence – a post that would complete his CV and make him a front-runner for future chief of staff. But Halutz chose a fellow pilot, Amos Yadlin, and shunted Gantz to the Ground Forces Command, a notorious graveyard for generals’ careers.
Gantz presciently warned at the end of 2005 that many of the army’s reserve units were under-trained. He was proved right months later as the armored brigades floundered in Lebanon – but by then he was no longer on the fast-track. At the end of 2007 he left Israel to serve as IDF military attaché to the United States in Washington, a post usually reserved for generals at the end of their careers.
Ultimately, though, it was Gantz’s affability and decency that propelled him to the very top. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff who replaced Halutz, presented himself as a gruff, no-nonsense infantry grunt, and received public adulation for having “rebuilt the IDF” after the Lebanon failure. But behind the facade was a calculating and devious political mind: Ashkenazi continuously clashed and conspired against his boss, then-Defense Minister Barak, who was on his political comeback and no slouch at General Staff machinations himself.
Ashkenazi and Barak could agree on very little and when the time came to appoint a new number two, vetoed each other’s candidates. Laid-back, inoffensive Benny Gantz was the only remaining senior general with the necessary experience to serve as the IDF’s deputy chief of staff. He was called back from Washington.
The deputy chief of staff is usually considered a front-runner for the top job, but Gantz had the label of “compromise candidate.” Not a great recommendation. Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi-Barak enmity culminated in forged documents being leaked to the media and police investigators descending on the General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv. When the dust settled, Barak’s choice to succeed Ashkenazi was soon brought down by a new scandal. By default, Gantz – the last remaining candidate and already planning his new life as a civilian – became the IDF’s 20th chief of staff.
Beyond personal antipathy, the main source of contention during Ashkenazi’s tenure between 2007 and 2011 was Barak and Netanyahu’s desire to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. Most of the military hierarchy and intelligence community were staunchly opposed to attacking Iran, and Ashkenazi and Barak had clashed furiously in the presence of other ministers and service chiefs.
“Gantz was also against bombing Iran,” says a cabinet minister from the time. “But while Ashkenazi refused orders to put the army at operational readiness for an attack, Gantz respectfully presented his professional recommendation against the operation and then said the IDF was prepared to carry out whatever order it was given.”
The order to bomb Iran never came. Instead, Gantz’s four years at the helm were more of the same: Secret raids throughout the region on Iranian arms convoys headed for Hezbollah, in an ongoing campaign Gantz called “the war between the wars”; and a bloody offensive in Gaza every couple of years. Operation Protective Edge – 50 days in Gaza in the summer of 2014 – was another long and inconclusive campaign. Just as in Lebanon, the ground troops had once again been ill-prepared to deal with a much weaker, asymmetrical adversary – this time Hamas and its tunnels.
Once again, though, Gantz evaded most of the blame.
In Gantz’s favor, he became Israel’s military chief because he was untainted by scandal and had no real enemies. But it would be hard to argue he had won the coveted lieutenant-general epaulets on merit.
“Benny is an accidental appointment,” says one bemused former general. “He was the compromise candidate for the deputy job and third choice for chief of staff. He wasn’t ruthless and didn’t have a burning desire, and still got the job. He’s a nice guy and very fortunate, but I can’t see how that will be enough for him to take on a political killer like Netanyahu. I fail to understand how people can see him as prime minister.”
Part V: The Power of Generals
Every IDF chief of staff becomes hot political property upon retirement from the army. Every party is eager for an ex-lieutenant general to grace its Knesset slate. Of the 19 men who preceded Gantz as chief of staff, only three stayed completely out of politics. Eleven served in the Knesset. Ten were ministers. Two became prime minister. In 2007, concerned (or possibly jealous) politicians legislated a three-year “cooling-off” period for chiefs of staff when they left the post, to try to devalue their political currency.
The one chief of staff’s name Gantz’s team do not like to hear mentioned is that of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak – another blue-eyed paratrooper also regarded as a “prince” as he rose through the ranks to become army chief. He was Gantz’s unofficial adviser while chief of staff and, three days before his death from cancer in December 2012, Gantz was summoned to see Lipkin-Shahak in hospital, in what some in the paratroopers’ fraternity saw as “a passing of the torch.”
Lipkin-Shahak went into politics soon after leaving the chief of staff post in 1998, calling Netanyahu – then in his first term as prime minister, and with whom Lipkin-Shahak had continuously clashed in cabinet security debates – “a danger to Israel.” For a short while, Lipkin-Shahak was the great white hope – until, that is, he gave his first political speech. He had a laid-back air to him as well, and simply didn’t seem to want it badly enough. It was another former chief of staff, Barak, who eventually beat Netanyahu in the 1999 election.
So is Gantz a Lipkin-Shahak or a Barak?
“You can’t find a chief of staff who was more different from Barak – the know-it-all who would never listen to others – than Gantz,” says one former general who knows both men well. “But that doesn’t mean Barak was a good politician or Gantz will be a bad one. Barak won in 1999, but he was incapable of working with others and became the shortest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.
“You can’t predict how a general will be in politics. In the army, you are part of a hierarchy; you have lots of authority and backing from the system. In politics, you have to learn different rules, build coalitions, watch your back and make compromises. I actually think Gantz, as an excellent team player, can succeed at politics,” the former general says.
At first, with his low-energy image, Gantz seemed a less obvious candidate for politics. Like any other retired general he picked up a lucrative string of directorships in various companies, served voluntarily on boards of NGOs and went on the lecture circuit – dividing his time between high-paying corporate events and speaking for free to youth groups. He also spent some time fundraising for educational projects in Jewish and Bedouin communities in the Negev. In his frequent appearances, he ducked all questions about his future political plans.
Gantz’s people insist he’s serious about taking on Netanyahu both now and on April 9, not just after any potential indictment. But they are unsure whether he should attack the prime minister head-on in his maiden speech on Tuesday and then throughout the campaign. If Gantz goes for Bibi with all guns blazing, he risks antagonizing those wavering Likud voters he needs to win over. But if he adopts a more conciliatory tone, he will only reinforce the doubts of centrist voters who are yet to be convinced that laid-back Benny has the passion to fight Bibi for them.
There is much skepticism among his rivals on the center-left, who have all but given up on beating Netanyahu in an election and are resigned to waiting for him to be forced from office by the likely indictments for corruption. “Gantz can’t win and he knows it,” says one senior figure in a centrist party, who met with him multiple times over the past two years. “He’s running to be defense minister in Netanyahu’s next coalition. So far he hasn’t criticized Bibi even once.”
“With all due respect to Gantz’s personal favorability, we are in a party system,” says veteran polling expert Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin. “Likud is currently the only party on the scene with a strong loyalty factor, both for the party and its leader.”
To have a real chance of threatening Likud, Hosen L'Yisrael not only has to double the 14 seats it’s currently averaging in polls. It also needs to attract voters not just away from other centrist parties but also away from the coalition parties. Since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, his bloc of right-wing and religious parties has held onto its small but stable majority in the Knesset. Can Gantz project a tough-enough image and add heavy-hitting candidates to his slate who are sufficiently attractive to the right to peel away 150,000 voters (worth three or four seats) from Likud?
Part VI: The New Centrist
In Kfar Ahim, all the children – also those of secular families – went to the same religious elementary school. While most of the original Holocaust survivors who founded Kfar Ahim in 1949 were religious, a few were not – including Nahum Gantz.
“Benny’s father was actually active in encouraging more secular families to come and live in Kfar Ahim, and the Gantzes were not religious themselves,” says Yossi Erel, a rabbi and academic who was born in the village and knew the family well. “Kfar Ahim was always unique in being a small community where religious and secular residents lived together harmoniously. Nahum Gantz would drive my father – when he couldn’t walk any longer – to the synagogue every day; he himself came only on festive occasions. But every time Benny was promoted in the IDF, he would hold a kiddush at the synagogue on Shabbat.”
In high school, Gantz Jr. studied at the nearby Yeshivat Or Etzion for a year, before deciding he’d had enough of religious studies and transferred to a secular boarding school. He doesn’t seem to have been traumatized. In 2012, he was guest of honor at the yeshiva’s 35th anniversary: Wearing a large khaki knitted kippa, he was presented as one of its alumni. He devoted part of his speech to condemning attacks by an “extreme minority” of settlers against senior IDF officers.
Religion is just one of many key issues on which Gantz’s positions are unclear. While other generals have acknowledged in recent years that the IDF has an issue with rabbis and their students trying to impose religious norms on the military, in 2010 then-Deputy Chief of Staff Gantz denied there was a problem. As chief of staff, he threw a group of religious cadets out of a prestigious officer training course when they left a military remembrance service because women were singing in it. At the same time, though, he delayed issuing new orders that had been drafted to safeguard the equality of female soldiers and commanders, but which would have put him on a collision course with the rabbis. They were signed off by his successor, Eisenkot.
Nahum Gantz was a central figure in the Labor Party’s moshavim (agricultural villages) movement, and there was talk at one point that he may become a Knesset member. Benny Gantz’s younger sister was in the movement as well, and in 2013 Benny’s eldest son publicly joined Labor. The candidate himself, though, is impossible to pin down to any discernible political position or affiliation.
Is the real Benny Gantz the one whose campaign videos highlight how his IDF sent parts of Gaza “back to the Stone Age,” or the brigadier who in 2000 watered down orders to use more firepower in the West Bank? Is he closer to the CEOs who paid him handsomely to join their boards, or the schoolchildren in deprived areas he raised funds for? Is he serious about challenging Netanyahu, or will he happily join him as a minister in the next Likud coalition government?
There’s nothing the Gantz team dread more than having their boss branded a “leftist.” As part of his strategy to define himself as the new centrist, Gantz has decided not to give any refugee lawmakers from other parties spots on his Hosen L'Yisrael slate. With one exception. He is eager for MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, who split with the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu in 2016 and now heads the Gesher party (another new, vaguely centrist platform), to join him.
Levi-Abekasis ticks all the boxes: She comes from the right; as the daughter of former minister David Levy, she is a Likud princess; and, of course, her parents were both born in Morocco. Who better to serve as a foil against Likud slurs that Gantz is just another elite Ashkenazi leftist?
Two other stars Gantz is working hard to entice have a lot more in common with him – two predecessors as chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. This may seem counterintuitive: Why does Hosen L'Yisrael need three ex-chiefs of staff? “It makes perfect sense,” says one of Gantz’s advisers. “Israelis don’t vote for social justice or religious pluralism. They vote for whoever keeps them secure. For the last 10 years, Netanyahu – unjustifiably – has been perceived as Mr. Security. A joint ticket of three IDF chiefs of staff takes away Bibi’s advantage,” the adviser explains.
The Gantz team are fully aware that their candidate’s personal popularity, even if it continues to rise – perhaps even passing that of Netanyahu – is not enough, with Likud still getting double the number of seats in the polls. They urgently need to create a brand for Hosen L'Yisrael, a party that didn’t even exist a month ago. That’s why they’re going all-out on security and militarism. Only the strongest khaki can give their party the identity it needs in time.
“Running [in an election] with so many parties is a recipe for another Netanyahu government,” says MK Hilik Bar (Labor). “Gantz could have joined Labor as [leader] Avi Gabbay’s number two and we would have a chance then. Our internal polls show us getting between 26 and 29 seats with Gantz. He chose not to, and that means he’s not serious about beating Bibi. He just wants to build his own power base and wait for Bibi to leave,” Bar says.
Right now, Benny Gantz is doing what he does best: patiently listening to all the contradictory views among his team before he decides. But time is running out for the first candidate in a decade who seems to have a chance of ending the Netanyahu era.
“For the last 10 years Netanyahu has built his unassailable status, and now we’ve proved that Gantz is his first true challenger,” says one of the campaign’s hired strategists. But while the polls may be smiling on Gantz the candidate, Hosen L'Yisrael is still stuck on around 14 seats in polls – less than half of what Likud is getting. “Now we have to build the bridge between Gantz and those missing seats, with the right campaign and the right alliances,” says the strategist.
His first campaign speech on Tuesday won’t just be a message to the voters. He will firstly be auditioning for other centrist party leaders and potential allies to join Hosen L'Yisrael’s ticket. To beat Netanyahu’s traditional right-wing religious coalition, he needs his own coalition behind him. After so many false challengers, Gantz needs to prove to them that only he can end the Netanyahu era.