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Benny Gantz fighting for his political life

Feb 26, 2021

The most ego-driven battle being waged in the charged Israeli political arena is not taking place on the right, where Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, the respective leaders of the New Hope and Yamina parties, are going at each other tooth and nail. It is not even between them and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is busy trying to steal voters from his two challengers, as usual. The most furious battle is under way on the center left — not between a handful of small parties fighting for sufficient votes to get elected to the Knesset — but within just one party on that spectrum, Blue and White. The fight is between the former military chief of staff and current defense minister, Benny Gantz, and his close friends on the one hand and his former voters on the other.

The Blue and White party that Lt. Gen. (res.) Gantz formed just over two years ago once was good for 33 or more Knesset seats, which made it the sole viable alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud through three consecutive election campaigns, but polls now place it at the bottom of the heap. On a good day it is polling at four or five seats for the March 23 elections, and on a bad day it does not even cross the four-seat electoral threshold for the 120-seat Knesset.

Gantz, who split from Yesh Atid and its leader Yair Lapid in order to join the Netanyahu government in May 2020, has also now lost his most dependable ally, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who has decided not to run. Gantz is fighting for his political life, struggling with every breath he takes.

This time, his opponents are not Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s voters or the extreme right. Rather, those opposed to him are his deeply disappointed former voters and his former comrades in arms. Their fight is as bitter and emotional as only family feuds can be.

This week, some 130 former senior officers and officials who fought shoulder to shoulder alongside the decorated general throughout his military career petitioned him in a public ad to drop out of the race. “Benny, enough. You tried everything, now put the country first,” was the headline of the letter signed by his former commanders and subordinates, lieutenant generals, major generals and brigadier generals, former heads of the Israel Defense Forces (such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak), top brass of the Mossad and Shin Bet.

“We, your friends and those who love you … knew you as courageous. The time has come to make an important leadership decision and abandon this dangerous election, which will leave you below the electoral threshold,” they wrote, explaining their concern that if Gantz’s Blue and White fails to get at least 3.25% of the vote, the tens of thousands of ballots cast for the party will be wasted, weakening the prospects of the anyone-but-Netanyahu bloc.

The petition was designed to put the lame horse named Gantz out of his continued misery by preventing his defeat on election day. But it had the opposite effect. Feeling deeply betrayed, a furious Gantz went on the offensive, storming the bastions erected by his former brothers. “I am keeping to the objective and continuing to charge forward,” he said. “Instead of helping or providing cover fire at the objective, they are shooting me in the back.”

One of the letter’s signatories, Gen. (ret.) Neri Yarkoni, swept up in Gantz’s military imagery, responded that there is no need to shoot him in the back. People should look him in the eye and shoot in the stomach. Reportedly, Gantz instructed aides to lodge a police complaint against Yarkoni, who later said that by no means was he calling for Gantz to be hurt in any way. Yarkoni apologized, saying he had made a mistake in taking the metaphor in the direction he did.

Be that as it may, the upcoming elections will be determined at the bottom, not the top. There is little doubt the Likud will remain the biggest Knesset party. Next in the polls is the centrist Yesh Atid, which has consistently failed to cross the 20-seat bar (while the Likud has been polling at 26-30 seats). Still, Lapid seems singularly untroubled. He knows that his best bet is for Netanyahu to head into the elections as the favorite and sure winner, rather than the other way round. Netanyahu’s ability to amass the equivalent votes of a 61-seat Knesset majority, which he has failed to achieve in three back-to-back elections, depends on one thing only: whether any of the small parties in the “anyone-but-Netanyahu” bloc fail to pass the threshold.

This is a particularly crucial question given that Netanyahu, with his political genius and national irresponsibility, has managed to prevent any loss of votes for his bloc. He did so by engineering a union between Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, the radical right vanguard of religious Zionism, and the even more radical Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, a disciple of the late arch-racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Netanyahu’s bloc, comprised of the ultra-right and ultra-Orthodox, has maximized its power. The situation on the other side is the exact opposite.

Now back to Gantz. Although the veteran left-wing Meretz party is also struggling in the polls on the edges of the electoral threshold, Blue and White is considered in even worse shape. The party is a relative newcomer, its voting base is brittle, it has lost most of its leaders and Gantz’s friends and former supporters are deeply troubled by the insistence of the “alternate prime minister” to stick it out to the end.

Gantz is experiencing a vitriolic campaign on all fronts in recent weeks, especially on social media and on the part of his former partners. His promises notwithstanding, he has not hooked up with any other party in the anyone-but-Netanyahu bloc, stubbornly barricading himself in the ivory tower he has built for himself at the Defense Ministry, conveying ridiculous optimism. His sole advantage is financial. Israel’s election funding law is based on the number of Knesset seats parties have won — 17 in Gantz’s case (after Yesh Atid’s seats are subtracted), a figure that now seems imaginary.

Blue and White’s rich kitty is a direct contrast to its poor showing, which is what prompted his former friends and voters to turn on him. For now, Gantz is adamant. He recognizes the relative frailty of the Labor Party under its newly elected leader Merav Michaeli and is directing his energies to luring veteran Labor voters to his party. He has been somewhat successful, so far. The latest polls place him above the electoral threshold, just. His position is still precarious.  

When he entered politics in late 2018, Gantz did not generate great hopes. He is laid back, relatively honest, nonconfrontational, and well-intentioned — traits that have made him a target for the neighborhood political bullies. Gantz first surprised pundits when Blue and White turned into a monstrous voting machine threatening Netanyahu’s hold on power. The second surprise came when he folded and joined the Netanyahu government. His current refusal to bow out is handing pundits their third surprise.

The IDF’s 20th chief-of-staff has grown a thick skin in recent months. He is scarred and hurting, but not broken. “Netanyahu,” he said in an angry Feb. 20 interview on Channel 12 television, “dismantled my party and dismantled my family and stomped on my head, but he did not break my fighting spirit”.

Gantz is motivated mainly by a desire for revenge against Netanyahu, and by one other small factor that could become very big indeed. According to an amendment to the Basic Law the government enacted 10 months ago in order to anchor the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing arrangement, Gantz was to automatically assume the premiership in November. Therefore, if he is elected to the Knesset next month and the results are once again inconclusive, he would remain defense minister and alternate prime minister while Israel prepares for its fifth consecutive elections. The Netanyahu-Gantz government would remain a transitional government and if fifth elections were held after November, Gantz would run as prime minister. Yes, such a crazy event — which could only happen in Israel — is a definite possibility on the 2021 calendar. As slim as this chance is, Gantz is not about to let it escape.

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