In his maiden campaign speech last week, former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz made a virtue of being calm. Hewing close to patriotism but steering clear of jingoism, he struck a fuzzy middle course that initially excited enough Israelis to lead talking heads to conclude that Gantz may be a realistic alternative to longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Overnight, the polls showed that Gantz and his newly minted Israel Resilience Party would receive 21 to 24 Knesset seats if the election was held today. That projection had Israel Resilience getting eight more seats than what previous polls predicted. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s Likud is polling pretty steadily at around 30 seats — still the biggest vote-getter, but only about half of what’s needed for a majority.
“Momentum. That’s the magic word,” Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz. “That’s what Gantz brought to a despondent, depressed, disappointed electorate that was preparing for more bitter frustration on April 9. Suddenly, there’s a chance. All of a sudden, the situation doesn’t look terminal.” So, it appears that Gantz’s pitch is being viewed as a message of hope.
“There is nothing more precious in the world to me than the state of Israel,” Gantz, 59, declared. “For me, Israel really is before all. We are one nation. We share one flag, one anthem and one army.”
The problem with that declaration is that it told the Israeli electorate, and Israel-watchers abroad, absolutely nothing. Instead, it was the equivalent of Mom, a plate of hummus and hot pita. Although Gantz did stress his security credentials — which are his strongest card against “Mr. Security” Netanyahu — the fact remains that Gantz and his political record are pretty much a blank slate.
We do, however, see some indication from Gantz’s choice of election partners that he may be working to combat the charge that he’s a lefty. To that end, he’s brought on several former rightward-leaning Netanyahu associates, most notably, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon, another former general, is a proponent of West Bank settlements and has called for bringing “a million settlers to Judea and Samaria.” On the other hand, one of Gantz’s campaign videos seemed to suggest that he is willing to compromise with the Palestinians. Which is it? We don’t really know. Uncertainty is the curse of a blank slate.
All Israeli governments and most of the country’s political parties have been built through the coalition process. Coalition relationships have a built-in tension that most, except for extremists and purists, can live with — at least for a while. Perhaps Gantz is trying to build a center-right coalition focused on security and not West Bank settlement. That could go a long way in taking the wind out of Netanyahu’s sails and provide Israel with a working center.
If not, Netanyahu will almost certainly sail to reelection. Which, given the history of coalitions, would not preclude Gantz and Israel Resilience from joining a new Netanyahu government. JN