It took Benny Gantz an entire month to utter his first political word after registering his new party, Hosen L’Yisrael (the Israel Resilience Party), on Dec. 27.
Gantz’s maiden speech, delivered to a crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv, was perfectly timed for the 8 o’clock evening news. Surrounded by white balloons with an olive-green logo to evoke his military background, Gantz delivered a series of jabs at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without ever mentioning him by name.
“The current leadership has traded the basic principles of Israeli statesmanship for the etiquette of a French royal dynasty,” Gantz said. “Instead of serving the people, our leadership patronizes it. There once was a king, not here, who said ‘I am the state,’ but not here. No Israeli leader is king.”
The words of the former chief of staff were carefully crafted to tap into the general sense of fatigue from Netanyahu’s decade in office. Tainted by four criminal investigations, the current prime minister has left many in Israel yearning for a new leader who can maintain the non-negotiable bedrock of security and offer a similar gravitas but without the constant personal scandals. Gantz represents something that Israelis love: a veteran soldier carrying an olive branch.
In a long interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Gantz hinted that he’d endorse further territorial concessions during peace talks. “As Bibi [Netanyahu] said in his Bar Ilan speech, we’re not seeking to control another people,” Gantz said. “We need to find a way in which we aren’t controlling other people.” It was a brief statement, short on details but enough to bring a storm of condemnations from the right. But the questions remain: What are the specifics of Gantz’s thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does he support the two-state solution or oppose it? Is he a capitalist or a socialist? Few seem to know, and many don’t seem to care.
“Gantz is reminiscent of Rabin. His words have touched people,” opined the left-leaning veteran political commentator Amnon Abramovich on Channel 12 news. “Benny Gantz is a swindler like Rabin,” agreed the firebrand right-wing talk-radio host Yoram Sheftel following the speech. “He’ll divide Jerusalem if, heaven forbid, he enters the prime minister’s office.”
It was Netanyahu who first accused Gantz of being a leftist, a label Israeli politicians are trying these days to avoid like the plague. “I’m not bothered by how the left divides its votes,” the prime minister commented nonchalantly as Gantz emerged on the scene.
Other Likud ministers quickly chimed in after Gantz proposed to amend the recently passed Nation-State Law which downgraded the status of Arabic and pledged to “encourage” Jewish settlement in Israel. Gantz’s comments “let the cat out of the bag,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, exposing “the true Meretz of the left-wing candidate Benny Gantz.”
But now Bibi has good cause for concern. Polls show that Gantz’s speech won him at least seven extra Knesset seats, which would make Hosen L’Yisrael the second largest party after Likud. On the question of competence to serve as prime minister, Gantz is now neck and neck with Netanyahu.
The ex-general, for his part, had been doing everything possible to shake the “leftist” brand. Gantz’s first partnership was forged with his predecessor, former Chief of Staff and former Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, who said—when still in uniform—that the Palestinian threat had reached “cancerous proportions.” Later in his career, he dubbed Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas “Abu Lie” and publicly warned President Trump against relaunching negotiations with the Palestinian leader. Gantz then recruited former Netanyahu spokesman Yoaz Hendel and former Netanyahu Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser. As of now, his list resembles a moderate version of Likud more than a traditional left-wing party.
But there were signs, starting a few years ago, of the Gantz who would make a statement like the one to Yediot Ahronot about not ruling over another people.
Less than a year after the last IDF operation in Gaza, Protective Edge, a memorial concert was held for the victims on both sides in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, near the border. An Israeli orchestra and choir performed Mozart’s Requiem—an apt tribute to the thousands of victims—and the presence of a few Gaza residents who’d received permits to enter Israel made the event all the more politically significant.
One visitor to the concert, however, who entered silently and took his seat near the front, could not be missed; towering head and shoulders above the rest.
Gantz had retired from his position as IDF Chief of Staff just four months earlier, in February 2015. Ironically, he was the commander in chief of the forces that entered Gaza to thwart the threat of cross-border terror tunnels dug by Hamas in the summer of 2014. Should his presence be understood as a political statement? I wondered at the time. In retrospect, perhaps it should have.
True, Gantz used his first formal campaign speech to threaten Israel’s main foes across the Middle East: Hasan Rouhani and Qassem Soleimani in Iran, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza. “In the harsh and violent Middle East surrounding us, there is no mercy for the weak. Only the strong survive!” he declared.
But also, carefully, he has started uttering the word most political advisers warn against using: peace. “Under my leadership, the government will strive for peace and will not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change,” he said. “However, if it turns out that there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality. Israel will be not be deprived of its status as a strong, Jewish and democratic state.” With that, Gantz showed his tendency toward unilateralism on the Palestinian front, a possible recreation of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The Gaza disengagement, he said in the more recent Yediot Ahronot interview, was “a legal act adopted by the Israeli government and carried out by the IDF and the settlers in a painful but proper manner. We need to learn our lessons and implement them elsewhere.” He added, however, that no settlers will be removed from their homes unilaterally.
If Israel’s political history is any guide, Gantz’s restrained approach is completely understandable. Former chiefs of staff like Shaul Mofaz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak rose quickly in the local political scene but failed to deliver on their promise. Two months before the general elections, Gantz rightfully fears early burnout. “I was raised in the paratroopers,” he was quoted as saying by Haaretz political analyst Yossi Verter. “If I learned anything there, it’s that when the time comes to charge forward, you do it with full force and in short range.”
Gantz began his military career in 1977 as a paratrooper, climbing the command ladder to lead brigades and divisions on the Lebanon border and in the West Bank. He became commander of the Israeli Northern Command in 2001, then military attaché to the U.S. from 2005 to 2009, and finally deputy chief of staff. His appointment as chief of staff in February 2011 seemed only natural, after his main rival, Yoav Galant (the current housing minister and member of Kulanu party), was disqualified.
Two major military operations in Gaza took place during Gantz’s tenure: Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014).
But how does Gantz view the solution to the Gaza predicament today? In October, he announced his endorsement of a new strategic plan for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, put forward by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a leading Israeli think tank. The plan is pessimistic about progress on the diplomatic track, but promotes a series of unilateral moves by Israel to incrementally separate from the Palestinians. The plan focuses on the West Bank, intentionally ignoring Jerusalem and Gaza.
If indeed the INSS plan reflects Gantz’s outlook on the conflict, it would put him at odds with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently favored the status quo over dramatic change. Both Netanyahu and Gantz, however, seem to share a sense of pessimism over the prospect of renewed negotiations with the PLO.
If anything, Gantz’s remarkable success in the polls indicates how distrustful Israelis are of their political system. To the left of the Likud, floating in that ambiguous space known as the political center, dozens of Knesset seats are ripe for the picking. But the new leader, it would seem, should be someone Israelis know little about, because the leaders they do know about have fared quite poorly.
“Gantz’s statements weren’t that different than attacks by opposition leaders like Avi Gabbay, Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni,” wrote Verter, the Haaretz political analyst. “Yet from Gantz’s mouth they sounded more authentic and raised less ridicule and suspicion. We’ve gotten used to the others, we’ve had enough of some; they are seasoned politicians who have had the chance to disappoint us. Gantz is the new boy on the block.”
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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.