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Israel's Comeback Kid: One-on-One with Benny Gantz


On March 20, 2021, three days before the opening of the polls for election #4, Benny Gantz went out for a stroll.

Accompanied by a handful of supporters and more than a few security guards, he emerged from his armored vehicle into the bustling center of ​​Tel Aviv nightlife and began his tour of the bars along Rothschild Boulevard.

His campaign team was moved to tears. They couldn't believe what their cameras were capturing. It quickly became clear to them that in Tel Aviv, Israel’s bastion of liberalism, Gantz's status as a respected leader had been restored. No more nasty nicknames, no more curses.

“Benny, Benny!” shouted the young, tipsy crowds. Those who had recently demeaned him as an inexperienced political sheep who had fallen into a trap set for him by Benjamin Netanyahu, clearly now saw him in a different light.

Gantz left Tel Aviv that evening reassured. For the first time in months, he sensed that the threat of political extinction that had been dogging him was no more.

On election day Gantz was vindicated. Blue and White became the surprise of the elections, receiving eight seats. Until the end of the campaign period, many had been writing Gantz’s political obit.

Gantz’s triumph was key to enabling the formation of the “change government” led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. He continued in his role as minister of defense. While Prime Minister Bennett was hammered and scorned by the public, Gantz began his ascent. The man originally perceived as an unlikely politician is today, as we approach the fifth round of elections in three years, one of the most stable elements in Israeli politics – and someone it is no longer so delusional to imagine in the prime minister's office.

Gantz was further bolstered a few months ago, when he oversaw – without interference from Prime Minister Lapid – Operation Breaking Dawn, which dismantled the leadership of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip in about three days. Now, all that remains to be seen is whether his “on-the-job” accomplishments translate into additional Knesset seats.


I.

A YEAR AND A HALF AGO this scenario would have seemed delusional.

Within a year, Benny Gantz, former IDF chief of staff, had mutated from a symbol of hope to a colossal disappointment in the eyes of many voters. His decision to support Benjamin Netanyahu in forming an emergency government was near fatal.

Israel was just emerging from the shock of the global pandemic. Gantz mulled over the polling data that he received on a near-daily basis. The defense minister’s situation was shaky, if not desperate. His political base had abandoned him, and most of the polls were inconclusive; some showed Blue and White struggling to pass the electoral threshold. The future did not appear rosy.

For Gantz, 2021 had been the year from hell. He had been slammed on a daily basis, mainly by his former supporters, who called him every derogatory name in the book for joining forces with the great nemesis, Netanyahu.

Family, friends and activists hold a rally and prayer service calling for the release of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin outside the home of Minister Of Defense Benny Gantz, in Rosh Ha'ayin, September 24, 2022. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Family, friends and activists hold a rally and prayer service calling for the release of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin outside the home of Minister Of Defense Benny Gantz, in Rosh Ha'ayin, September 24, 2022. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz believed that he was doing the right thing for the country; that he was preventing Netanyahu from turning Israel into Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. During the election campaign he somehow found a way to bounce back, embarking on an intense race against time and against the projections that anticipated him being wiped out.

“What happened to Benny?” wondered those who had accompanied the former general through three previous election campaigns, and who thought that he had lost his touch.

Benny was back.


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II.

AND THIS IS PRECISELY GANTZ'S CURRENT MISSION – to obtain enough seats (at least 15) in order to become the natural and logical default the day after E-Day; to be a viable option for President Herzog to tap to form a governing coalition. All this turns, of course, on no single power bloc having a clear path to a bare 61-seat majority.

For Gantz, this election is, likely, his last opportunity to become prime minister. It’s not yet entirely clear how he will make this happen, but Gantz has invested significant effort in recent years to nurture a communication channel with members of the ultra-Orthodox parties who are loyal to Netanyahu, in an effort to convince them that they have nothing to fear from him.

With his staff, Gantz has formulated a strategy to be rolled out in the event that neither Netanyahu nor Lapid succeed in forming a government. In such a scenario, he, Gantz, would be the only one capable of preventing a sixth round of elections.

Why him? Gantz believes that the ultra-Orthodox are much less afraid of him than they are of the secular Lapid. Furthermore, his religious background, connection to tradition, and steadfast refusal to lock horns with the ultra-Orthodox parties since he entered politics, make him, on paper, a possible alternative in the event of another political deadlock.

Gantz’s recruitment of former Likudnik and Minister of Justice, Gideon Sa'ar, to Blue and White – a move that raised quite a few eyebrows – certainly elevated his status to the “heavyweight” class of the political center, until now owned by Lapid. Partnering with Sa’ar signaled an openness towards the right. This union was calculated to attract right-wingers who are disinclined to support Netanyahu and show them that Gantz is their man.

Sa'ar is considered one of the most sophisticated politicians in the country; his departure from the Likud in December 2020 ultimately led to Netanyahu's defeat in the 2021 elections. Moreover, Sa'ar has strong links to ultra-Orthodox politicians, and though he lacks the charisma of Netanyahu, Lapid or even Gantz, behind closed doors, there are very few politicians who can concoct a deal better than him.

The alliance with Sa'ar's list boosted Gantz, giving him seats in the double digits, but as time passed, the polling numbers declined, and National Unity – Gantz's new party, which changed its name after the addition of former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot – settled at 12 seats in the polls. Eisenkot is no vote magnet, but Gantz won points for his political acumen, since Lapid had also tried to attract Eisenkot to Yesh Atid, and failed.

Even so, two weeks before E-day, in Gantz's campaign headquarters, gloom once again began to set in. The polls are stuck. Gantz is stuck. The dream of being the person to form the next government has diminished, yet again.

The greatest fear of the Israeli defense minister’s camp is that caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid is throwing everything he has to prevent Gantz from becoming a realistic candidate for prime minister.

Perhaps. In fact, quite likely. Or, it could just be that Gantz has peaked.


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III.

IN MID-AUGUST, a few hours before he and Eisenkot sealed their deal, Benny Gantz sat in the small office adjacent to his house in Rosh Ha'ayin. He poured himself a cold beer and offered the same to this reporter.

When Gantz became minister of defense in 2020, this place became the war room in which some dramatic national security decisions were made. The defense establishment's techies adapted the space to suit Gantz’s needs, installing a red phone and a camera system that allowed him to conduct meetings and discussions even if he was in isolation.

Most importantly, in the last year, he added an “at-home” beer tap, just like in a pub. When he can, he allows himself a few minutes of relaxation, sitting in his armchair and indulging in a cool half pint. Catching live performances by Israeli artists, listening to his favorite band, Hagivatron, and beer are Benny Gantz's key pleasures these days.

Gantz spends a lot of time in this room. There’s a small refrigerator, a bookshelf, a few photographs of Gantz with different people, some familiar and some not. Tucked away in a corner is a tefillin bag, not typically part of an Israeli politician’s standard decor.

But Gantz comes from a traditionally observant home, and he has a similar bag at the Ministry of Defense, with the name Binyamin embroidered on it. He often, but not regularly, lays tefillin for prayer.

The Gantz family has lived in this house for many years, since he was an IDF officer. The area of ​​Rosh Ha'ayin, one of Tel Aviv's satellite towns, is a copy-paste of so many central suburbs. Nothing special. All that distinguishes the home from others in the neighborhood is the extensive security equipment attached to the fence, the bodyguards’ booth, the black Audi A8 standing in the driveway and the massive iron gates that block the street at both ends.


IV.

Anyone entering this room is offered a cold beer or espresso. Gantz serves it up himself.

As he relaxes and discusses his plans, he leans back and lifts his head, looking up at the ceiling. “I want to do other things besides being defense minister,” says the man who entered politics in order to replace Netanyahu. “I know the matters of the Ministry of Defense; I have been familiar with these matters all my life. I’ve been the minister of defense for several years now. But what troubles me is the state of Israeli society. The peace between us. I’m concerned about social and educational issues. I want to engage in them, learn them. I have children here; one of them just enlisted in the army. We need to think about their futures.”

From any other politician, such pleas may sound contrived. Artificial. But Gantz meant what he said – only a few hours later he signed an agreement with Eisenkot guaranteeing that the latter would serve as minister of defense in any government including their party, even if Gantz is not appointed to be prime minister.

Gantz vows that he will never again sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, and most certainly not under him. For a year now, Netanyahu has been attempting to lure Gantz with every possible promise so that he would trigger a vote of no-confidence to dissolve the “change” government. But the traumatic experience of his time in the unity government with Netanyahu has led Gantz to pledge that no matter what Netanyahu offers him, he’s not buying it. “He has no more credit,” says Gantz. “He’s got to go. He’s a danger to Israeli democracy.”


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V.

SO, WHAT STILL GIVES GANTZ HOPE that he will become prime minister?

First, the never-ending political turmoil. Second, his personal sense that that he is ready and more prepared than anyone else for the position for which he entered politics, leaving behind a comfortable life in the business world.

Then there’s the notorious sourness, which has led to several memes on social media, that has accompanied Gantz from the moment he was forced to accept Naftali Bennett – the man who brought barely six seats into the coalition with him – becoming prime minister. Oh, and there’s also Gantz’s long-standing rivalry with Yair Lapid, which has been revived in recent weeks. Lapid does, of course, have to speak with Gantz on an almost daily basis, but their conversations stick to security matters and never veer into politics.

Election posters of leader of the National Unity Party, Benny Gantz, posted alongside the Ayalon highway on September 8, 2022. (Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Gantz and his staff are frustrated by the polls, but he is working nonstop. Giant banners bearing his image, with the Hebrew word “Acharav” (“after him”) hang throughout the country. While the signs haven’t boosted his party in the polls, Gantz is well received wherever he goes – including Likud strongholds like the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, at a concert in Bat Yam featuring Mizrahi artists, and in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Bnei Brak. “There was a time, when I first entered politics, that I was received with applause in liberal strongholds,” Gantz recalls. “When I joined Bibi, that cooled down. Now, I am again well-received in these places. But that’s the easy part. I need to bring in the Likudniks; I need to bring in the right. That's what we're working on.”

It is no easy task. Right-wing voters, fed up with Netanyahu as some may be, are having a hard time deciding who to support. They are famously loyal to their party but some are seeking an alternative that is “mamlachti” (a Hebrew word for which there no accurate English translation but which denotes the priority of the national interest above party politics), but not too leftist. Gantz seems to be a good option, but… maybe not.

The minister of defense’s campaign focuses heavily on national responsibility and mamlachtiut, two concepts that, in the era of flashy populism, carry less appeal and esteem than they have in the past. But they still resonate with Likudniks.

However, they are bothered by Benny the centrist, the leader who established a line of communication with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and the meetings he has held with him. Abu Mazen has even visited Gantz at his home – a level of familiarity that worries potential voters on the right.

“Gantz is a leftist,” says Ayelet Shaked, leader of the Jewish Home party, which is currently struggling to pass the electoral threshold. “And he also wants a Palestinian state.”

Gantz dismisses his critics. “My concern is the interest of the State of Israel,” he says, “and if it is in the interest of the state that I talk to Abu Mazen, I will talk to him. My job is to safeguard the security of all the residents of this country. I’m the minister of defense. I will do whatever is necessary for the sake of security.”


VI.

AT GANTZ'S CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS IN TEL AVIV, his team sits around a long table, late into the night, brainstorming ways to move the stubborn poll numbers. Half empty bottles of wine and gin are scattered, alongside boxes of junk food.

“Nothing is moving,” says a campaign worker in frustration. “It's been weeks. No change.” As E-Day nears, Gantz is expected make more public appearances, rubbing shoulders with potential voters. In the Israeli political system, which oscillates between madness and insanity, Benny Gantz is looking for a moment of sanity; when he can try his luck, again, to become prime minister. As someone who was nicknamed “Mazeliko” (“lucky guy”) during his military career due to his knack for being in the right place at the right time, Gantz and his campaign staff are hoping that on November 1, the stars will align.

“And if Bibi approaches you again,” Gantz was asked recently, “and offers you to be prime minister for the first two years of the term – only you, with all the power and capabilities, what will you do?”

Gantz allowed himself a long, silent pause, thinking carefully.

“We'll see after the elections,” he answered quietly. “But I certainly won’t serve in a government led by Netanyahu. Not anymore.”


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Tel Aviv, Israel
Attila Somfalvi is the lead anchor of Ynet News, a major Israeli media outlet, leads two podcasts, co-hosts a radio show and was a past visiting scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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