Talking about the upcoming Israeli Elections, the name of Benny Gantz stands out as the true and only rival of Benjamin Netanyahu in this electoral race; together with his party, he has an unprecedented chance to defeat the Likud.
The former chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presented his new party officially in January, and immediately Hosen L’Ysrael (Resilience for Israel) scored a great number of supporters, which increased even more when the coalition with Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) was officially announced. The new formation, Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) immediately reached its peak in the polls and was estimated to get 36 Knesset Members (MKs) against the 28 for Likud.
What elements allowed Benny Gantz and his group of former IDF generals to conquer the trust of a large part of Israeli voters in less than four months, so much that it was considered the first best shot in decades to put an end to the uninterrupted series of governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu? During these weeks of electoral campaign, Benny Gantz has been described as the quintessential of Israeliness: a Sabra, born in a kibbutz from a religious family whose parents were Holocaust survivors, with a stunning career in the IDF culminating in the four years as the army’s chief of staff. He is the best man to deliver a loud and clear message to Israelis: Benjamin Netanyahu is not Mr Security, and I am the man who can do the work and improve Israel’s security situation.
Indeed, it was not by chance that the electoral campaign of Hosen L’Ysrael started with the release of a quite striking video showing the effects of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and the targeted killing of Hamas’ members; everything from the beginning was designed in order to brand Gantz and his group as hardliners about security issues, just to make sure no one could label the General as “leftist” – the best way politicians can lose their credibility in Israel. Also, the decision to join forces with Moshe Ya’alon’s (Likud’s former minister of defence and IDF’s chief of staff) Telem party has to be interpreted keeping in mind this goal: conquering the centre of Israeli political spectrum and attracting away from Likud moderate right-wing voters tired of the Prime Minister and his controversial alliances, bringing them “home” to a party that, from the very beginning, recalled the Zionist the old times of Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.
So, while the pollsters believe that there is still a 5-8% of undecided Israelis that could go either way, many observers have already made comparisons with past experiences of centre parties in Israeli politics like Shinui or, better yet, Kadima. But, in this case, notwithstanding the similar electoral strategies strongly based on providing security and conquering the trust of the centrist electorate, there is a major difference regarding the reasons why these parties were created that makes them profoundly diverse; indeed, while Kadima was born from the willingness of Ariel Sharon to develop his political project outside of Likud, Hosen L’Ysrael was created to fulfil the strategic goal to defeat Netanyahu. This is the motivation that brought Benny Gantz to create Kahol Lavan together with Yair Lapid, in order to provide the party with a better chance to win through the attainment of the well-grounded experience and vision of Yesh Atid’s leader.
This dynamic is well visible in the platform of the party (published in early March) which is largely dedicated to social and welfare issues dear to Yesh Atid and its electorate, while Hosen L’Ysrael’s mark is barely present due to the vagueness and the brevity of the security and foreign policy sections (some points even correspond to some of the old Likud stances). So, in the past few weeks, Gantz had to face mainly two types of critiques: one coming from Netanyahu and his partners calling him a “weak leftist”, and the second one stemming from the left parties accusing him of not being strong enough to state fundamental positions regarding the Palestinian question and the peace process.
For sure, part of this criticism is due to the fact that Labor and Meretz are suffering the loss of voters because many of their loyal supporters are abandoning them in order to give Gantz the necessary strength to bring Netanyahu down. Besides this reason, the flow of voters has been mainly possible thanks to some characteristics of the former chief of staff that allow him to fully adopt the “Yitzhak Rabin winning formula”; indeed thanks to his physical presence, his personal history, and his attitude, Benny Gantz has reminded to many Labor and Meretz voters the former Prime Minister, triggering in the mind of part of the electorate feelings and hopes that seemed to be long lost.
It is not by chance that some aspects of Gantz’s electoral campaign are following the guidelines of the one conducted by the Labor Party (under Yitzhak Rabin) in 1992: a strong emphasis on security credentials as Mr Security in order to prove that the concept of national security proposed so far by Likud is not going to work in the long term, but rather it endangers the very nature of the state of Israel (Jewish and democratic); an effort to avoid alienating a large section of the electorate that does not believe that such vision could take place (especially after the experience of the second intifada and after ten years of Netanyahu’s rhetoric) by abstaining from making too strong, ideological statements regarding the issue.
And here lies the main difference between the electoral campaigns of Rabin and Gantz, which is probably the element that could make the difference. Indeed, it is true that the former Prime Minister never mentioned an Oslo Agreement or the creation of a Palestinian State but, first of all, he spoke loudly about the elephant in the room and second, he was able to present the issue to the people in a pragmatic, acceptable way: focusing on the resources that were allocated beyond the Green Line and thus were not available for the welfare needs of the Israelis.
Until these last few days of electoral campaign, Gantz was not able to fully follow the example of Rabin, maybe because of his lack of experience but, surely, also because he is playing the game in a profoundly changed political context and, moreover, against an adversary who is changing the rules of the game itself. Indeed, not only Benjamin Netanyahu is demonstrating once again his ability to communicate his personal message to the voters maintaining the Likud 28 MKs estimated in the polls even after general attorney Avichai Mandelblit announced an indictment against him. He also proved to have enough sharpness to set the tones, the modes, and the themes of the entire electoral campaign from the very beginning; that meant to transform the election into a personal referendum, to draw the lines that establish which contender will be cast out from the electoral game, to leave out any prominent topic relevant to the public debate while focusing the discourse on personal attacks and void rhetoric against his main rival Benny Gantz (he has been at the centre of the highest number of fake news for the central eight weeks of the electoral campaign).
These facts have made the 2019 electoral competition one of the harshest in Israel’s history because what it is at stake is not only the political and personal survival of Netanyahu, rather there is an important battle for the definition of the identity of the state and how its citizens envision it. Benjamin Netanyahu is playing for himself but, in order to achieve victory, he has relied on extreme ideologies, instigating them and bringing along their instances up to a point where some fundamental boundaries have been blurred.
Benny Gantz and his party represent an utmost attempt carried out by former members of the security establishment to contain the surge of this political deviation that is not really about right and left but is about the principles that both David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin agreed on. That’s why Benny Gantz has a real chance: because he wants to propose, recall, and revive the founding ethos of Zionism to safeguard Israeli democracy as we know it from perilous drifts.