Concerted Attack by Right Casts Gantz as Clearest Threat to Netanyahu

The former chief of staff’s pledge to amend the nation-state law embodies the choice between patriotism and nationalism that awaits Israelis on April 9

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Former IDF chief Benny Gantz.
Former IDF chief Benny Gantz.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Torah forbids all witchcraft, including spells and incantations, but Talmudic scholars made exemptions for saving lives (pikuach nefesh) and for expelling demons. Both loopholes applied this week to the right wing’s astonishing onslaught against former army chief of staff and current political contender Benny Gantz after he promised Druze demonstrators that he would strive to amend the controversial nation-state law. At times it seemed like a collective exorcism in which participants are expected to repeatedly cry out “leftist, leftist” and, on special moments, “extreme leftist.” Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud believe in the moniker’s power to ward off evil and keep them both in power.

The intensity of the reaction was obviously influenced by the primary for Likud’s Knesset list, which will be held in three weeks. Time is short and attracting media attention at this critical juncture is extremely competitive. When the hitherto reticent Gantz finally produced a morsel they could sink their teeth into, the right-wingers pounced on it with gusto.

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In their zealous quest to be seen and heard knocking the “leftist” Gantz, thus scoring valuable brownie points among party members who vote in the primaries, rank hypocrisy was obviously not an obstacle. Some of the right-wingers who lambasted Gantz now, including Likud’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who faces a primary, and the New Right’s Ayelet Shaked, who doesn’t, co-sponsored earlier versions of the nation-state law that included commitments to democracy and the Declaration of Independence, which were subsequently omitted before the Knesset approved the final bill last summer. Maybe they're secret leftists as well.

By these new right-wing standards, Benny Begin, who savaged the nation-state law and proposed amending it to include “equality of all citizens,” is a radical lefty, somewhere between Meretz and the Arab Joint List. Back on earth, Begin is on the far right on issues of security and the Palestinians, but in today’s Netanyahu-beholden Likud, anyone who doesn’t fawn over the supreme leader’s wisdom, foresight and accomplishments – such as the nation-state law – is automatically designated a smolan, the formerly neutral Hebrew word for leftist that, after years of defamation and degradation by Netanyahu & Co., has morphed into a synonym for a defeatist, at the very least, if not a traitor.

The concerted right-wing rush to brand him a lefty, however, may turn out to be more of a blessing as far as Gantz is concerned. By concentrating so much firepower on Gantz, his detractors placed him at center stage and unwittingly cast him as the clearest threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Labor’s Avi Gabbay may have commended Gantz for his commitment but were likely dismayed by the free, right-wing spotlight that focused on him alone. If Gantz ever gets around to speaking out on truly divisive issues such as peace, Jewish settlements or separation of religion and state, the hysterics likely to be shown by Netanyahu and Likud would probably anoint him as de facto leader of the opposing camp.

Political commentators were under-impressed by Gantz’s first dip into the smoldering cauldron of election campaigns. Some of them internalized the right-wing spin, as if offering to amend the nation-state law, which a majority of Israeli Jews support, was equivalent to advocating its complete revocation, which most Israeli Jews oppose. Gantz’s statement marked him as a leftist, they parroted, which will do him damage. It’s not inconceivable, however, that the complete opposite will turn out to be true: that Gantz’s views on the Druze will turn out to be not only a tactical success, prodding Likud to overreact in his favor, but a strategic line in the sand that will be seen with the benefit of hindsight as nothing less than a game changer.

The right wants to use the nation-state law as a litmus test: If you support the law, you’re on the side of the Jews, and if you want to revoke or just change it, you’re obviously not. Gantz is offering a third alternative to this binary option, one that is not only Jewish but Israeli as well. His pledge to amend the nation-state law reflects not only a wish shared by most of the public to mend fences and restore the so-called blood alliance between Jews and Druze, it also embodies an aspiration for true equality, a resilient democracy and the guiding spirit of the Declaration of Independence. What Likud seeks to paint as anti-Jewish leftism can be easily turned around to symbolize good ol’ pro-Israel patriotism.

Likud’s base will lap up the efforts to tarnish Gantz’s name, but the outburst of right-wing agitation against the former army commander may give pause to more centrist right-wingers who ultimately decide the election. Accidentally or by full design, Gantz has delineated the battle lines between the insular and ethnocentric nationalism of the right and the enlightened and liberal democracy that Israel once aspired to be. Gantz’s continued silence may infuriate the pundits, but it took only a few short words, on an issue not seen previously as central, to map out for Israelis the stark alternatives they will face on April 9 and just how momentous their decision could be.

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