Opinion

Gantz’s Quintessential ‘Israeliness’ Is His Secret Weapon Against Netanyahu

The prime minister has experience and savvy on his side, but his rival’s Israeli persona strikes fear in his heart, spurring his increasingly venomous bile

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz speaking at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 25, 2019.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Following his successful appearance at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Monday, Benny Gantz gave a wretched interview to Channel 12 anchor Yonit Levi. He was impatient, looked as if he hadn’t slept for weeks and showed how inexperienced he is in conversing via satellite.

Gantz seemed helpless in the face of Levi’s relentless pursuit of the two topics he wished to avoid: the situation in Gaza; and his odd assertion, in a clandestinely recorded conversation, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have him killed if he could.

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Reading the text of the interview, however — as opposed to watching Gantz’s televised train wreck — reveals that his answers, though evasive at times, were completely coherent and to the point.

>> Analysis: With confident AIPAC performance, Gantz shows U.S. there is an alternative to Bibi ■ 'Insane and unstable': Netanyahu's party brands Gantz mentally unfit for office ■ Opinion: Benny Gantz is either cowardly or immoral

Likud could have legitimately used the interview to bolster its claim that Gantz is too inexperienced to serve as prime minister, but that wasn’t bad enough for them. Using studio-engineered loops, remixes and quotes taken wildly out of context, the prime minister’s aides launched a coordinated smear campaign to portray the man that Netanyahu himself appointed as army chief of staff, and who served under him for four years, as insane, bonkers, a meshuggener with certificates.

If there were any remaining red lines of vulgarity and depravity in Israeli politics, Netanyahu and his minions crossed them all.

The hysteria that often characterizes Netanyahu’s reaction to stressful situations — usually involving his own career — doesn’t provide a full explanation for such a loss of self-control. Gantz has turned out to be a far more dangerous adversary than anyone in Likud expected, but the pure venom of the attacks on him go above and beyond survival instinct or lust to stay in power. Something in Gantz hits a raw nerve: That something is called, for want of a better term, his Israeliness.

Netanyahu is a sophisticated statesman, cunning politician and master manipulator. He is vastly more experienced in running a country — never mind his superb English, which, when coming from Gantz, sounds like it’s been through a chain saw.

But Netanyahu’s clear-cut advantages also point to his Achilles’ heel: The last thing one can say about the prime minister is that he typifies an Israeli ideal, or even the Israeli stereotype.

After all, he spent a significant chunk of his formative years in the United States, wanted to make his mark there after graduating from MIT, embraced its mannerisms, lingo and right-wing politics, and became an American darling before most Israelis had even heard of him. Netanyahu is like a fish in water in an American milieu, but in Israel he will always be, to a certain extent, a stranger.

Gantz, on the other hand, is like a walking poster of Israel-style salt of the earth. His biography reads like a lexicon of Israeli clichés: Sabra son of Holocaust survivors, born and bred in an agricultural moshav, schooled in a yeshiva and boarding school, Paratroopers, special units, Israel Defense Forces general and chief of staff — the works.

He looks like an Israeli hero from central casting — Americans often liken him to Paul Newman in “Exodus” — but his movements, speech, struggles with English and unease in front of TV cameras are quintessentially Israeli. His authenticity was applauded at AIPAC this week; my colleague Allison Kaplan Sommer tweeted that he reminds her of Yitzhak Rabin.

This is Netanyahu’s nightmare: In the past three decades, Likud lost only two elections. In both cases, they were defeated by former IDF chiefs of staff, Rabin and Ehud Barak, whose personalities may be a study in contrasts but whose shared “Israeliness” was distinct and undeniable.

Gantz may lack Rabin’s aura as hero of the Six-Day War or Barak’s as the army’s most decorated soldier, but he carries the same stamp that certifies he is “100% Israeli.”

Gantz’s “Israeliness” not only highlights Netanyahu’s foreignness, it embodies the very values of devotion to the state and playing by the rules that have been mutilated, trampled and taken for dead, especially in his last term in office.

The fear that good old Israel is still alive and kicking somehow is what keeps Netanyahu and his people up at night, pushing them to go over to the dark side from which they spew their poisonous bile.