Opinion

The Wild Card: Netanyahu's Most Valuable Electoral Asset

If Benny Gantz wins enough Knesset seats in the upcoming elections, the former army chief of staff could guarantee Netanyahu's reelection

FILE Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with former Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, during a graduation ceremony of navy officers in Haifa, Israel, September 11, 2013.
Dan Balilty/AP Photo

Benny Gantz is the wild card in the next election campaign. The former army chief of staff is maintaining his characteristic ambiguity but the poll numbers encourage him to run, foretelling an impressive vault to the center of power as the head of his own party. If these forecasts are borne out, by joining the race Gantz will guarantee Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection to a fifth term as prime minister. And if he wins enough Knesset seats, Gantz will return to his old workplace, military headquarters: this time as defense minister, handily leapfrogging over his rivals for the post, cabinet ministers Nafali Bennett, Yoav Galant and Avigdor Lieberman.

Gantz is seen by politicians and the general public as a man of the center-left, whether due to his looks or perhaps senior officers’ inclination toward the old Laborite combination, a la Yitzhak Rabin, of being hawkish on defense but moderate on the peace process. It doesn’t matter: A party headed by Gantz would be the Netanyahu-led right’s most valuable asset, because it would smash the “left-wing bloc” into a salad of mediocre parties, none of which would threaten Likud’s dominance.

>>To beat Netanyahu in the next elections, his rivals should party like it's 1999 | Analysis 

Netanyahu would only have to choose his new coalition partners. Gantz has already made it clear that he’s in, declaring a few months ago: “Likud is a Zionist party, and from my standpoint, anything that is Zionist is legitimate.” It wouldn’t be a rerun of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the chief of staff who, two decades ago, stepped down and announced he was going into politics to save the country from Netanyahu.

Gantz’s critics mock him as “gray” and “boring.” There’s no doubt that throughout his career Gantz avoided saying anything controversial or engaging in any disputes under the media’s gaze. But in the next election, this will be his most important asset. Gantz sounds like a “Good Old Land of Israel" song by Arik Einstein.

He will present a platform that embraces Zionism, security, unity, with photographs showing him looking at sheaves of wheat at harvest time. His rivals are tainted by hatred and slander — Yair Lapid vs. the Haredim and the left, Avi Gabbay vs. Netanyahu, Moshe Kahlon vs. Gabbay, and Netanyahu vs. everyone. Gantz has no enemies — nor, as far as anyone knows, any friends to whom he owes favors. This will be his story: the soldier who re-enlists for the sake of the country, this time in the political trenches.

Netanyahu certainly understands the new candidate’s potential. First of all, a Gantz party would free Likud from Bennett’s embrace and give Netanyahu a more moderate and comfortable coalition partner. The former military chief would lend the government an aura of dignity, with his impressive military record, valuable boosts to its image ahead of the decision on whether or not to indict the prime minister.

Gantz won’t need any training before going back into the war room to approve sorties and operations. He is also very familiar with the U.S. defense establishment, from his time as military attaché in Washington. The most he may need to do is learn a little Russian, in light of the changes in the region since he left military headquarters.

Under these circumstances, Netanyahu will avoid attacking Gantz. The prime minister is maintaining strict campaign discipline, avoiding mudslinging fests with future coalition partners. He wants them to do well at the polling booths, even to take a few Knesset seats from Likud, so long as they recommend him for the job when the president consults them after the election. That’s how Netanyahu treated Lieberman in 2009, Lapid in 2013 and Kahlon in 2015. In denying leaks intimating that he offered Gantz the post of foreign minister in the current government, Netanyahu sent a clear signal of his willingness to cooperate with his former army chief of staff.

The decision now lies with Gantz. The question is how he will handle the dilemmas that always arise in politics, and whether he can stand up for himself against Netanyahu and present independent positions, as he did when he successfully came out against bombing Iran.