Based on 20-odd years of acquaintance with Benny Gantz, including quite a few interviews and countless speeches, this can be said with certainty: He never sounded sharper and clearer than he did in Tel Aviv Tuesday night.
He was obviously trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in his maiden political speech. There’s also no doubt that he displayed no small degree of pretension, along with unnecessary boasting on security issues and rather ridiculous threats against Israeli’s enemies.
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But the standard complaint against Gantz, which dates back to his army days — that he twists his words, deliberately obscures his message and even mumbles some answers — wasn’t on display this time around. The mumbling had disappeared completely.
It’s clear that Gantz thoroughly prepared for this first impression. His well-timed entrance, his voice, his diction, even his hand motions were well-honed.
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Although his speech featured the expected talking points about Israeli unity and pride, surprisingly it also included some unambiguous attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: frequent comparisons with monarchical rule, criticism of the prime minister as divisive and corrupt, a pledge not to join a coalition with someone who would be indicted and even a historical dig about how Netanyahu shook hands with “that mass murderer Arafat” during his first term as prime minister.
The speech highlighted Gantz’s strong points, which are well known from his long army service. He showed self-control. Neither the excessive, artificial cheering from the crowd nor the lone protester who heckled him diverted him from his prepared text. One also couldn't help notice his sense of humor, his considerable charm and staging that — as with Netanyahu in his younger days — were in the style of an American senator.
Before the speech began, there were two conflicting theories about what impact it would have. One was that it would begin letting the air out of a balloon that had been inflated out of all proportion by media that hate Netanyahu. The other was that it would mark the moment when a strong candidate's election bid really took off.
In fact, Gantz seems to have overcome his first hurdle — a speech to the nation on live television — with surprising success. What happens next will apparently depend on his ability to run a disciplined campaign (something completely new to him) with minimal slips of the tongue and maximum alliances with other parties in the political center.
Gantz’s main drawing card is his military background. The large number of people who deem him suitable in the polls to be prime minister (which far exceeds the number of seats his party is projected in those same polls to win) stems primarily from a single issue — the fact that Gantz, more than other party leaders on the center-left, such as Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay — is entering the ring with significant security experience. He himself mentioned this more than once in his speech, including the obligatory comment that he is used to answering the phone in the middle of the night.
That’s why the right wing, particularly Netanyahu, feels under such pressure from Gantz’s candidacy, and why Netanyahu’s Likud party is trying hard to undermine Gantz's security image. That much was clear from the moment the prospect that Gantz would enter politics arose.
Culture Minister Miri Regev — who, miracle of miracles, went on the air right after Gantz promised “no more court jesters in the government” — has regularly attacked Gantz over his security record. The right wing has prepared a file of material for a targeted hit on Gantz's record, including many unflattering moments in his military career: the rather chaotic Israeli withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon; the case of the Druze border policeman, Madhat Yousef, who bled to death at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus at the start of the second intifada; Gantz’s role in preparing for the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and his performance as army chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war.
Of all these claims, only the last one is relevant and deserving of discussion. It’s impossible to blame Gantz, as Likud did in a campaign advertisement on Tuesday, for Madhat Yousef’s death in Nablus. Gantz, then a brigadier general, was a division commander. There was a whole chain of command above him, including Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the army chief of staff and the head of the army’s Central Command. The allegation that a wounded member of the security forces was abandoned has emotional resonance, but there is no justification for pinning the blame on Gantz in particular.
The 2014 war, however, is another matter. Under Gantz's command, the Israeli army's conduct was sluggish and lacked initiative. The faulty preparation for the threat posed by tunnels was a colossal mistake, even if it wasn’t of the dimensions of the army’s failure in the Second Lebanon War. Nor was there any justification for the army essentially treading water against Hamas, the weakest enemy in Israel’s neighborhood, for 51 days.
But for all of this, then-Chief of Staff Gantz shares the blame with two partners. One of them, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, hooked up with Gantz on Tuesday night to form a joint election ticket. The second is Netanyahu, who was and still is prime minister. But when Likud ministers assail Gantz, they seek to absolve Netanyahu of all responsibility.
Netanyahu is also the person responsible for the government’s adamant refusal at the time to allow any relief for Gaza’s humanitarian woes on the eve of the war — a mistake he insists on repeating at this very moment.