Opinion

Israeli Election Mismatch Pits Fire-breathing Netanyahu Against Sluggish Gantz

The center-left candidate is storming the Prime Minister’s Office with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner consigned to hard labor

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz.
Tomer Appelbaum, Moti Milrod

Benjamin Netanyahu is larger than life. He casts a giant shadow over the country he’s ruled for over a decade. Netanyahu controls his cabinet, lords over his party, scares the legal system, deters journalists, tames civil servants and transforms ambitious politicians into petrified poodles. For the past few years, he’s been waging war on Israel’s ostensibly entrenched democracy and rule of law, which is now nearing its final, decisive round: One man against the sacrosanct bedrocks of his country, with more than reasonable chances to triumph.

Netanyahu is always a master of manipulation and a specialist in spins, but in election campaigns he invariably reaches his zenith. A survival instinct sharpens his mind and injects his veins with boundless energy: He is ruthlessly focused, his charisma works overtime and his words inspire fear among rivals and enthusiasm among fans. In ancient Greece, Plato defined similar maestros of eloquence and oratory, who distort reality and enchant the crowds, as practitioners of witchcraft.

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But in a campaign rightfully described as fateful for the future of Israel, against the greatest campaigner Israel has ever known, Netanyahu’s opponents find themselves with no other choice but to place their trust in the pale enigma that is Benny Gantz. Less than a month before Israeli voters make their decision, the former chief of staff hasn’t even entered the ring. He is too busy fighting leaks, fending off intrigue, dispelling cruel rumors and contending with the eternal internal bickering of his colleagues in Kahol Lavan.

Ehud Barak, whose bid to return to the top was thwarted by the reemergence of his questionable ties to Jeffrey Epstein, is nonetheless savaging Netanyahu on a daily basis, showing Gantz how it’s meant to be done. Gantz has yet to deliver a memorable speech, present a viable program or leave his mark with a sharp or incisive retort. He has failed to inspire enthusiasm or sweep the masses over to his side. The Kahol Lavan leader makes do with occasional tweets and ad-hoc reactions, which often leave him tongue-tied and searching for words. He is storming the Prime Minister’s Office with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner consigned to hard labor.

Gantz’s passive strategy may have been reasonable for a candidate who entered politics and set up a new party only a few months before the April 9 election. He would be the default option, riding waves of anti-Netanyahu sentiment. Sticking to the same exact tactics despite their previous failure, however, is reminiscent of the famous definition of insanity, erroneously ascribed to Albert Einstein: Repeating the same steps over and over but expecting different results.

The senior politicians who lead Kahol Lavan, whether out of lethargy, expediency or concern for their own fragile bonds, could have replaced Gantz with the more charismatic Gabi Ashkenazi, but they re-anointed Gantz instead. They have now added insult to injury by preserving their listless election campaign, which was universally pilloried the last time around. In a campaign deemed fateful for the future of Israeli democracy, a kill or be killed confrontation between light and darkness, Kahol Lavan’s secret weapon seems to be inertia.

Perhaps we’ll see a miracle, and Gantz’s seeming listlessness and confusion will appeal to voters who have tired of Netanyahu’s relentless bells and whistles. Perhaps Gantz himself will surprise, snap out of his lethargy and pounce on Netanyahu like a famished lion, backed by an aggressive and effective campaign that will take everyone by surprise at the very last minute.

But the way things stand today, Netanyahu’s critics and opponents will come to the polls on September 17 with a heavy heart, in trepidation rather than joy, with the sorrow of losers instead of the elation of winners, and with the clear and excruciating knowledge that they did not live up to the hour. They picked a lightweight to take on the heavyweight champion of Israeli politics, with the full knowledge that the only reasonable outcome is a knockout.