Analysis

With Confident AIPAC Performance, Gantz Shows U.S. There Is an Alternative to Bibi

While the prime minister always has the D.C. crowd in the palm of his hand thanks to his oratorial polish, his rival was the archetypal native Israeli – and all the more appealing to Americans for that

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz speaking at AIPAC, March 25, 2019.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Benny Gantz successfully passed a test Monday that he probably shouldn’t have shown up for in the first place.

His speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington was a hit, winning the appreciation of the U.S. crowd at the pro-Israel lobby’s annual gathering. It’s not clear, though, whether his appearance will help him win any votes in Israel, where the headlines all day were focused on the latest security crisis with Gaza.

This was Gantz’s first appearance at AIPAC, but it was evident that he has worked with the lobby’s leadership in the past while serving as Israel’s military attaché to Washington. 

His speech was a perfect fit for the AIPAC crowd — which tilts more to the right and includes many Trump and Netanyahu fans, but is also nostalgic for a “beautiful and righteous Israel” and is concerned about Israel’s standing in the U.S. public arena.

Aware that he was speaking on Benjamin Netanyahu’s home court, Gantz didn’t attack the prime minister and instead expressed support for his decision to cut short his visit to D.C. At the same time, though, he didn’t hesitate to bring up issues that have created anger toward Netanyahu among American Jews — such as the premier’s capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox parties regarding an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall

Gantz emphasized that he, as a veteran of the Paratroopers Brigade that fought to capture the Old City in 1967, believes that “every Jew should have a place at the Kotel.”

He also spoke at length about his military service. This is always a wise choice when appearing before the AIPAC crowd, which admires the Israeli army in ways that many Israelis today would consider archaic. 

He got the crowd excited when he talked about his participation in a secret operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and then got attendees to give a standing ovation to Pnina Tamano-Shata — a member of his Kahol Lavan party and herself an immigrant from Ethiopia.

His strong messages against Iran also won the crowd’s approval. He even managed, for the first time since the story became headline news, to give a smiling and confident response to Iran’s alleged hacking of his cellphone when he told the Iranian leadership from the stage: “You know me, and not only from my phone.” He threatening to be tough on the Islamic regime and to keep them from harming Israel. If he had used this line and approach two weeks ago, when the story first broke, perhaps it would have caused him less damage.

Another factor that helped Gantz receive a warm welcome was his strong Israeli accent. Over the past three years, the only Israeli politician who seriously tried to challenge Netanyahu’s hold on AIPAC was Yair Lapid, who did so by imitating the prime minister’s gestures, messages and excellent English. Lapid wasn’t even close to Netanyahu with his English maneuvers, but he was as close as any Israeli politician gets.

Gantz, however, offered the AIPAC crowd a totally different product: No American accent and no polished English; instead, this was the ultimate “sabra” (native Israeli) politician — someone with a funny accent; is trying hard to pronounce certain words; and who constantly speaks about his military service. This is how many old-fashioned American Jews who love Israel picture “an Israeli.” 

For Gantz, his reception at AIPAC should be seen as a success. Still, it’s not clear if, overall, it was wise for him to attend the conference rather than staying in Israel and campaigning on other issues. 

Yes, he managed to demonstrate to many of Netanyahu’s supporters in Washington that Israel can have a different prime minister — but his real test remains convincing Netanyahu’s supporters in Hadera and Ashdod