Netanyahu’s Challenger Has a Major Handicap
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- General Benny Gantz is the hope of every Israeli who would like to end the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 9th. He is not a bad choice, but he is new to politics and it shows. And there is a hole in his CV when it comes to civilian experience.
In 2015, not long after stepping down as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gantz announced that he was entering the world of business. His was a soft berth, chairmanship of the board of Fifth Dimension, a promising Israeli start-up that specialized in data mining and AI analysis for law enforcement agencies.
Gantz said he planned to lead the young company to “technological and financial success.” Three-and-a-half years later, though, Fifth Dimension went out of business after burning thorough almost 250 million shekels (roughly $70 million). More than a hundred employees lost their jobs. Gantz said nothing, while others in the company put the blame on a major investor, Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who they claimed did not come through with the infusion of capital he had pledged. Benny Gantz walked away and not long after announced his intention to start a new political party and run for prime minister.
And so he has. Less than a month before the 2019 election, his party is polling ahead of the incumbent Likud, although this says more about public fatigue with Netanyahu than enthusiasm with Gantz. The lead is also not sufficient to form a governing coalition, while Bibi would have a greater chance of doing so.
The party is called “Blue and White,” Israel’s national colors. Blue is also the color of the general’s eyes. Media profiles customarily begin with an admiring description of his piercing gaze, his craggy good looks and his towering height (in Israel, 6’4 qualifies as towering). Gantz is the Israeli JFK. Bibi is Richard Nixon.
Gantz lacks what Bibi has in spades – political acumen. He poses a lot but rarely talks. Less than a month before the election, he has given just one newspaper interview. The “reporters” were a popular singer and a stand-up comic. He has given only a few speeches and more than once he has gone badly off script.
The most egregious example was his televised attack on Netanyahu, whom he accused of amusing himself at American cocktail parties while he, Gantz, was leading troops in the field of battle. Bibi was an officer in Israel’s most prestigious commando unit and was wounded in action. He spent his time in America as a student at M.I.T., a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Washington and United Nations ambassador. Worse, the whole country knows this. This was the mistake of a rookie.
Even his long military career wasn’t glittering enough to seal his reputation. He lacks the military charisma of political generals like Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak or Moshe Dayan. He was a second-choice for the Chief of Staff’s office, and, although he performed competently, he won no famous battles. He was known for his amiable personality, his calm demeanor, personal modesty and operational caution.
Gantz’s campaign has successfully contrasted these virtues with Bibi’s arrogance, self-pity, alleged corruption and stop-at-nothing brand of politics. But Gantz has failed to portray himself as a moderate alternative to Netanyahu’s hardline nationalism. In fact, the two agree on just about every major issue. Both stand for permanent control of the Golan Heights, Israeli sovereignty in a united Jerusalem, strengthing the large Jewish settlement blocs of the West Bank and keeping IDF forces posted along the Jordan Valley border.
In a recent meeting with EU ambassadors, Gantz declined to support a two-state solution, another thing he and Bibi have in common. He said he’d think about some lesser form of separation between Israel and the West Bank Arabs. On the issue of how to deal with Iran, he has nothing but praise for Netanyahu. As for Gaza -- where the Israeli military struck 100 targets Thursday night in response to rockets fired at Tel Aviv -- he and Bibi have twice partnered to keep the Israeli Defense Forces from getting bogged down in a land war.
While Bibi is a master of the big public occasion and his English is flawless; Gantz has little to say in English. Hiss flops and pulled punches are due to his basic honesty and his lack of political judgment. It explains his campaign slogan, Israel First, which not only echoes Bibi’s friend Trump but can, in Hebrew, be read as Israel “uber alles.”
His refusal to explain the fiasco of the Fifth Dimension also betrays his inexperience. It is, after all, his only experience in the civilian world. Was he really just a figurehead or did he play an active role in the business. If so, what was his part in the failure? And what is his relationship to Viktor Vekselberg, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department?
Only a political rookie would believe that silence will make these questions go away. Bibi will ensure they don’t.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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