Israel’s 2019 election: A battle of two Benjamins

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press at southern Israeli port of Eilat, on March 10, 2014, as Israel displayed advanced rockets type M-302 capable of reaching distances of up to 200 km that were unloaded from the Panamanian-flagged Klos-C vessel on March 9, 2014 in the southern Israeli port of Eilat. The vessel, which was allegedly transporting arms from Iran to Gaza, was escorted into the port of Eilat after Israeli naval commandos seized it on March 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ

We could save the economy $480m, spare ourselves 100 days of bickering, and declare Netanyahu the winner again right now — were it not for the tantalizing candidacy of Benny Gantz

Israel’s main left-wing alliance split apart on Tuesday, leaving one of the country’s most prominent politicians, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, out in the cold ahead of an April general election.

It is beyond implausible that Avi Gabbay, the leader of the opposition Zionist Union, is going to win April’s elections. Tzipi Livni, the formal head of the opposition in the just-dissolved Knesset, certainly isn’t going to win either. Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid, has only a slightly better chance. Naftali Bennett, leader of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, knows his ambitions will have to wait a while longer. Moshe Ya’alon, the former chief of staff who is setting up his own party, could struggle even to clear the Knesset threshold if he runs alone, let alone become prime minister.

In short, we could save the Israeli economy the NIS 1.8 billion ($480 million) that somebody in the Treasury has computed the elections will cost us, spare ourselves 100 days of bickering and demagoguery, and just declare Benjamin Netanyahu the winner again right here and now. Were it not, that is, for another Benjamin.

Labor, under whatever name it competes, is unelectable so long as mainstream Israel sees no prospect of the Palestinians accepting viable terms for coexistence. Yesh Atid looks incapable of drawing enough support from center-right and center-left to challenge Netanyahu’s Likud. And nobody on the right comes close to rivaling Netanyahu’s popularity and political mastery.

Only Benny Gantz, our last but one chief of the IDF General Staff, poses a threat to Netanyahu’s extraordinary hold, scoring fairly high in Israel’s somewhat unreliable snap opinion polls. And that may be simply because most Israelis don’t know exactly what he stands for.

We love our chiefs of staff so long as they are in uniform. Of course we do. It is to the chiefs of staff that we ultimately give thanks for keeping most our children safe during their years of mandatory military service.

Hail the chiefs. (From left) Current IDF chief of staff Gantz and predecessors-turned-politicians Dan Halutz, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz, pictured last year. (photo credit: Meir Partush/Flash90)

Hail the chiefs. (From left) IDF chief of staff Gantz and predecessors-turned-politicians Dan Halutz, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz, in 2011. (Meir Partush/Flash90)

But that universal appreciation and aura of authority can dissipate quickly when the military chiefs enter politics. With every speech a chief of staff-turned-politician delivers, every clear position he takes, he inevitably disappoints, annoys and alienates another swath of the voting public.

Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak showed that it is possible to transition from head of the army to head of the government, but the rise and fall of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak underlines how easily a military star can fall. Retiring from the army in 1998, the hitherto beloved Lipkin-Shahak quickly entered politics, set up his own party, and flew to the top of the opinion polls. By the time elections came around the following year, however, he had been so battered on the campaign trail that, far from winning the leadership of the State of Israel, he had somehow contrived to lose the leadership of his own party.

Tall, composed and soft-spoken, Gantz bears more of a superficial resemblance to Lipkin-Shahak than to the blunt and charismatic Rabin or the spectacularly self-confident Barak. But only now, over the next three-and-a-bit months, are we really going to get to know him and learn what he stands for.

A refusal to be hysterical

Benny Gantz became chief of staff in 2011 almost by accident; he had already retired from the IDF at the end of a glittering, three-decade military career, when he was called back because the original appointee, Yoav Gallant, became embroiled in a minor scandal concerning unauthorized construction work at his home. Appointed by PM Netanyahu and DM Barak, Gantz is generally regarded as having been moderately successful in the position, having presided over the inconclusive 2012 and 2014 mini-wars against Hamas in Gaza.

In an interview in 2016, a few months after his retirement, Gantz said of the Iranian nuclear threat, “I refuse to be hysterical on this issue,” and that remark rather sets the tone for Benny Gantz as far as we know him to date: Not so much mild as temperate. Not arrogant, but assured. “I know Israel’s strength. I know Israel’s defensive capabilities. I know Israel’s offensive capabilities,” he continued in that interview, “and I am absolutely confident in our security.”

“We are an army that uses force not violence,” he said quite elegantly in another interview, with Haaretz in 2012, early in his term as chief of staff.

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