On Tuesday, Benny Gantz formally kicked off his campaign to become Israel’s prime minister with a speech before a crowd of political supporters challenging Prime Minister Netanyahu’s tenure and style of governing. Gantz put on an impressive and well-managed display, giving off the impression that his campaign and new Hosen L’Yisrael party are farther along than they probably actually are, and his speech itself was delivered smoothly and enthusiastically. All of this is important because they signal the one thing that Gantz wants to convey above all else, which is that he will make a viable prime minister irrespective of what his actual policies and positions are. But it is important to watch what else Gantz signals going forward, because while his political signaling is critical to getting elected, it is also going to impact Israeli security policy and the relationship with American Jewry.
Gantz has had two broad objectives since he decided to enter politics. The first is presenting himself as a believable alternative to Netanyahu. The factor that has perhaps worked to Netanyahu’s greatest benefit over the past decade is a sense among many Israelis that, irrespective of Netanyahu’s flaws, there is nobody else suited to be prime minister. Poll after poll has shown Netanyahu with double digit leads over rivals like Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay, and others on the question of who should be prime minister, with the gaps on this question larger than the gaps on support for Likud versus other parties. From a pure image perspective, Gantz came across on Tuesday as confident, natural, and composed, and as someone who is easily up to the task of occupying the house on Balfour Street. Indeed, polls on Wednesday showed Netanyahu and Gantz in a dead heat on the question of fitness to be prime minister, with one tallying Netanyahu at 36 percent and Gantz at 35 percent and another recording 42 percent for each. The polls also reflect Hosen L’Yisrael picking up steam, mainly from Yesh Atid and Labor, and polling at 21 seats to Likud’s 30, with a huge jump to 35 seats if merging with Yesh Atid. But it is the prime ministerial suitability question that is Gantz’s biggest accomplishment here and the one that should frighten Netanyahu the most, since that – rather than support for specific parties – has been Netanyahu’s secret weapon in an Israeli political system that is now far more about personalities than it is about parties. If Israelis view Gantz as a genuine alternative to Netanyahu, the polling for Hosen L’Yisrael will soon catch up to Likud.
The second Gantz objective has been to guard against anyone thinking that he is a leftist, on security issues or otherwise. He went a long way toward dispelling that notion yesterday too, speaking about peace with the Palestinians as a goal but not uttering the phrase two states, reinforcing the Golan and Jordan Valley as critical security borders, and partnering with hawkish former defense minister and two-state opponent Moshe Ya’alon, all as a way of signaling to right-leaning voters that he can be trusted and is not naïve about Palestinian intentions. Likud MKs along with Hayemin Hehadash leader Naftali Bennett immediately attempted to tar both Gantz and Ya’alon as leftists, but it is a moniker that is unlikely to stick to them as a pair. The narrative developing on the right that Gantz and Ya’alon are also responsible for appeasing the Palestinians or not being sufficiently tough on Hamas is also going to be hard to sustain, since Exhibit A for this argument – the perceived lack of a killer instinct during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – occurred on Netanyahu’s watch as prime minister and thus risks painting him with the same brush.
There is no question that Tuesday was a political homerun for Gantz. But Gantz has signaled a couple of other things as well over the past few days and weeks that present mixed messages, and it is important to determine which of these signals is actually a signal and which is noise. In his effort to make sure that nobody mistakes him for a starry eyed left-wing dreamer, Gantz has in some ways indicated that he aspires to be nothing more than a less corrupt and less autocratic version of Netanyahu, and in others that he intends to upend Israel’s security debate in a way that will put the country on a more stable footing and present an alternative that is actually politically and tangibly viable in the current environment.
Gantz’s partnership with Ya’alon is intended to show that Gantz has no desire to repeat what many Israelis view as the failed policies of Oslo, and that his approach to the Palestinians is going to be to proceed with maximum caution. If Ya’alon is known for one big idea, it is that Oslo failed and that Israel cannot afford to take unnecessary security risks on the basis of hope and trust. But in his speech, Gantz espoused positions that can also be taken as an endorsement of the middle ground proposed by Commanders for Israel’s Security, with his careful reference to the Jordan Valley as a security – rather than a political – border, his support for settlement blocs but not settlements writ large, his extolling of peace efforts by previous prime ministers, and his stated determination to strengthen Israel as Jewish and democratic by taking independent action. It is nearly impossible to square that section of the speech with Ya’alon’s oft-stated positions, including his comment to a reporter after the speech that he does not support two states for two peoples in any way. Is Gantz joining with Ya’alon for purely political purposes, knowing that Ya’alon is ultimately going to have to bow to Gantz’s wishes as his political superior, or is it a sign of what Gantz himself plans on pursuing? There is no definitive way of knowing, but the answer to that question is a critical one. Gantz has an opportunity to reset Israel’s security debate from one in which the right keeps on successfully attacking alternatives to an eternal Greater Israel as discredited and failed policies of the past, to one in which Israelis view the primary alternative as a viable middle ground that safeguards Israel’s security in the present while maintaining conditions for a future agreement should it present itself. Whether Gantz wants to actually rewrite that script remains to be seen.
In a similar vein, Gantz has now presented two very different faces on the question of his fundamental approach to conflict. In a campaign video that was released last week, Gantz literally boasted about how many Palestinians in Gaza were killed on his watch, taking a tough stance on terrorism to an uncomfortably coarse plane in which glorification of unapologetic violence was the unmistakable takeaway. That language was largely absent on Tuesday despite a tough tone, and Gantz specifically endorsed humanitarian assistance and economic aid for Gaza rather than advocating bombing it back to the Stone Age as he had done in his campaign video. As with the Ya’alon issue and policy toward the West Bank, which Gantz is the real Gantz? While the answer obviously matters a great deal for Israeli policy going forward, it also matters a great deal to American Jews, many of whom who are sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns but are aghast at conflating those concerns with a gleeful embrace of an anything goes attitude in combating terror. Gantz needs to be concerned with how his positions will impact Israel and Israelis first and foremost, but repairing Israel’s image with the North American Jewish community is critical to Israel’s security as well. Exulting in Palestinian deaths and destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, rather than portraying it as regrettable and working to make it avoidable, is only going to make Israel’s problems with Jews on this side of the ocean worse.
Gantz has a long way to go before becoming the next prime minister of Israel, Tuesday’s successful launch notwithstanding. The decisions and compromises he makes in the service of that ambition bear close watching. Gantz may be a genuine alternative to Netanyahu on Israel’s fundamental challenges, or he may be a genuine alternative on process but not on substance, but rather than clarifying which one he is, Tuesday’s speech may have made the answer to that question more ambiguous.