Benny Gantz’s short race to become Israel’s next prime minister has had two peaks so far.
The first was in January, immediately after he launched his Hosen L’Yisrael party, which leaped to second place in the polls with around 20 seats.
The second came after last month’s announcement of the alliance with Yesh Atid, sustained by the attorney general’s decision to indict Benjamin Netanyahu: The newly formed Kahol Lavan enjoyed a couple of weeks of heady polling with a wide margin over Likud, even enjoying an overall bloc majority in some polls, preventing a fifth Netanyahu government.
But the tide has turned again in the last 10 days. The gap between Likud and Kahol Lavan has closed and Netanyahu’s governing coalition of right-wing and religious parties once again has a majority that would deliver him victory.
There are still three weeks to go and the variables in the polls — not least the distinct possibility that as many as half a dozen parties which either side relies upon in their coalition calculations could fail to pass the electoral threshold — ensure that the result will remain on a knife-edge until 10 P.M. on April 9.
However, it is hard to deny that even before the Iran phone-hacking affair became public last Thursday night, and the hesitant, haphazard reaction from Gantz that compounded the damage, something was already wrong with the Kahol Lavan campaign.
Changes are already being made. Last week, Yair Lapid’s campaign team assumed control from Gantz’s strategists, who are still there but now playing second fiddle.
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From Sunday, the alliance’s four principal candidates — Gantz, Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — have all ramped up their attacks on Netanyahu, focusing on the so-called submarines affair (in which the premier is alleged to have profited from the sale of submarines to Egypt).
Upcoming polls will show if this change of tack has registered with voters, but for now the campaign is still officially in crisis mode.
Not that this should be surprising. In his attempt to reach Balfour Street, Gantz was always going to hit some major obstacles that could make the wheels come off, and here they are.
The wrong strategy
Early on, just after Hosen L’Yisrael’s launch, one of Gantz’s advisers described their campaign as “minimalist.” What he meant was running a tight ship in which Gantz would make carefully selected public appearances, with well-scripted speeches and only a small handful of interviews with “safe” interviewers. That worked during the “first impressions” stage, when Gantz could still rely on his Teflon image as the responsible adult and savior of the nation. When things began to get dirty, with a daily barrage of smears against Gantz from the Likud artillery, minimalism lost its effect.
Last Friday afternoon, when he held his impromptu press conference at the Gaza border responding to the Iran phone-hacking report, we finally saw a new Gantz, angry and engaged. It didn’t come over very well. The transition was badly timed and handled, but now it has to be sustained. But can he do that?
Not a killer
The cliché of a politician needing a killer instinct is no less true for being a cliché. Put differently, even the most benevolent leader needs a monstrous ego to believe he or she can determine the fate of millions, and a burning ambition to attain that status.
Nothing about Gantz’s seemingly effortless rise through the ranks of the Israeli army and the collegial and laid-back manner of command he effected in his various positions suggests he has that. Which basically means he’s a nice guy but perhaps too nice to become prime minister — especially when he needs to wrest the job from Netanyahu’s grasp.
But we could be wrong and Gantz may have the necessary ego and ambition. To prove he has, he needs to show voters he isn’t just following the script written by his campaign strategists.
Double-headed double trouble
One problem with Gantz showing he has the killer ambition to be prime minister is the way he agreed to cede 18 months of his prime ministerial term to Yair Lapid.
It may have seemed necessary to unite the centrist parties, but giving Lapid near-equal leadership status showed weakness and repeated the mistake Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni made in 2015. They eventually realized it was a bad idea and Livni announced on the eve of the election that she was relinquishing the “rotation” plan. But it was too late.
Just like then — when Netanyahu focused on the less popular Livni, detracting from Herzog’s image as a future leader — he is doing the same now by first mentioning Lapid every time he refers to Gantz. It will continue to diminish Gantz in voters’ eyes.
Lapid is many things: An accomplished performer, a man who built a political party from nothing and developed a cultish following among a bored section of Israel’s secular middle class. But his appeal is limited and the majority of Israelis see him as a charlatan. Many who would gladly see Netanyahu leave would still choose Bibi over Yair, any day of the week.
Lapid brings to the Kahol Lavan ticket his own party’s efficient organization and a seasoned campaigning team, but he is a constant reminder of Gantz’s weaknesses.
Adding two other former army chiefs of staff, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi, was seen as a winning strategy. How could Netanyahu retain his Mr. Security image with three former military chiefs up against him?
Ashkenazi — ironically, most Jews called Ashkenazi are not Ashkenazim — was seen as a bonus because of his Mizrahi-Golanchik identity (referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, and the famously combative Golani Brigade), a key element of appeal to right-wing voters.
But Ashkenazi also left the IDF under the cloud of the “Harpaz affair,” a toxic conflict between him and his political boss, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The details remain convoluted and controversial, and some new ones have mysteriously been leaked to the media in recent days. The normally belligerent Ashkenazi has seemed uncharacteristically reticent in interviews. Is he worried that more is about to come out? So far he isn’t proving an asset to Gantz.
When Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his decision on February 28 to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, for fraud, bribery and breach of trust, it seemed it would be the game-changing moment of the campaign.
The storm proved short-lived, though, and the charges against Netanyahu failed to dominate the agenda for more than a few days. This is partly due to the efficient way in which Netanyahu has pushed other items, real and contrived, but also because the essential elements of the indictments had already been known for a while.
The public has become attuned to the allegations and the majority of Israelis already knew where they stood on them, for or against Bibi. Kahol Lavan failed to have a follow-up strategy to keep the public focused on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption.
Curse of rationalism
Kahol Lavan is now focusing on the “other case” against Netanyahu: The murky circumstances of his involvement in the sale of German submarines to Israel and Egypt.
Potentially, the allegations of wrongdoing in Israel’s most strategic affairs could be more damaging to Netanyahu than any of the other cases. The only problem is that the same Mendelblit who intends to indict Netanyahu in what the police refer to as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 has furnished him with a letter exonerating him from any suspicion in the submarine affair (known as Case 3000). The letter was sent to the German government, assuring them there was no corruption on the part of senior officials or ministers; without that assurance, the Germans may have canceled the deal.
If Kahol Lavan is now focusing on the submarines, it will essentially be disputing Mendelblit’s judgment while it accepts his call on the other cases. This is the kind of contradictory argument that rational people don’t feel comfortable making. The way to do it is to be like Netanyahu: Make your argument forcefully, no matter how many contradictions it creates.
Up against the master
Ultimately, the greatest obstacle in Gantz’s path is that he’s up against a politician who has no problem running a campaign that demonizes his opponents with false claims and race-mongering.
A senior politician in Labor, which has been running a much more forceful campaign than Kahol Lavan against Likud and Netanyahu for weeks, said: “We have to fight like Bibi. The left think that to win we have to be different.” Gantz and his allies will try to emulate Netanyahu’s tactics, but this is a game he has been playing for decades. The odds are on his side.