Israelis watch the rising star of Gantz

  • Paula
There’s a popular weekly satirical show in Israel called Eretz Nehederet. In a recent episode, an actor playing Benny Gantz, the former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and newcomer to Israeli politics, is asked how he’s feeling.
by PAULA SLIER | Feb 07, 2019

He answers, “Fine”, to which an impersonator of Miri Regev, Likud’s minister of culture and a Netanyahu stalwart, starts screaming, “You see, you see he’s left-wing!”

This has fast proven to be the best way to taint the first serious contender in more than a decade to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power. If Gantz’s detractors can show the former army chief to be a leftist, there’s less chance he’ll take votes away from Netanyahu and his right-wing support base.

For weeks, after officially launching his political campaign, Gantz fuelled speculation. He kept quiet about his stance on issues, and in return his popularity soared.

Not saying anything seemed to satisfy Israelis. But he had to open his mouth eventually, and when, he revealed his political platform for the first time last week, instead of his ratings plummeting as pundits predicted, they’ve continued to climb steadily.

In anticipation of his speech, crowds gathered in Tel Aviv’s Fairgrounds, where they showered him with praise, shouting “Gantz!” every few seconds – even before he began talking. Keen to present himself as a unifying leader with vast military experience, he pushed his IDF background.

The overriding issue Israelis vote for is security, and for the past 10 years, Netanyahu’s tough “Mr Security” image has kept him in the driver’s seat. But when compared with that of Gantz’s legacy, it’s nothing special.

Keenly aware of this, the former army chief has focused his political campaigning on his strong man image. He’s released short video clips highlighting the death and destruction caused in Gaza on his watch, including the 6 231 Hamas targets hit and the 1 364 Palestinians killed during Operation Protective Edge four years ago. For some, the videos were in bad taste, but their objective was clear – to make sure that no-one would mistake Gantz for being a soft-hearted liberal.

Wary of his critics, the former IDF chief was vague about specifics in his much-anticipated launch speech. He did not explicitly say that he favoured the creation of a Palestinian state and, in spite of Netanyahu’s claims that Gantz would form a coalition government with Arab-Israeli political parties, he himself was mum on the issue.

A poll taken immediately afterwards found that Gantz’s Israel Resilience party would win 21 parliamentary seats compared to 30 seats for Netanyahu. But if Gantz was to merge with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, together they could win 35 seats and defeat Netanyahu. It is the first time since the start of the election that polling has found the incumbent prime minister to be so vulnerable.

Gantz is positioning himself in the centre of the political spectrum. The problem is that centrist parties traditionally don’t do particularly well in Israel. What’s more, although Gantz’s party and Yesh Atid are in talks to run together, it’s not clear if either party’s leader is prepared to relinquish the top seat to make such a merger work. At the moment, it’s Lapid who appears to be pushing the brakes.

Gantz appeals also to left-wing voters, whose overarching goal is simply to oust Netanyahu. They’re wondering when, if ever, he’ll be forced from office because of corruption charges. In the meantime, their next best hope is a Gantz win.

Polls show that about 70% of Israelis prefer a right-wing or centre-right government over a left-wing or centre-left one. In this respect, Gantz is careful not to position himself too much on the left of the political spectrum.

He knows his best chance at success is to head a centre-right coalition. If he can mobilise the anti-Likud elements around himself, it will be his best chance of defeating Netanyahu.

For now, Gantz’s star is shining bright. He appeals also to the politically apathetic, like a friend of mine who told me, “I’m voting for that army general even though I don’t know his name or what he stands for.”

In response, Netanyahu is reportedly considering an alliance between his Likud party and smaller right-wing parties to make sure they win more seats than the centrists.

But it’s not clear whether or not some of the parties that made up the outgoing Netanyahu coalition will win the minimum 3.25% of the vote (equivalent to four seats) to make it into the Knesset (Parliament).

In this scenario, Netanyahu won’t have enough natural allies to form the next government. And that could be his end.

While a lot can still change in the weeks before the 9 April elections, for the first time in a long time Netanyahu is being forced to mull the option that he might not win another term in office.


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