Benny Gantz, Israel's former Chief of Staff, announces his bid for the premiership in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Gili Yaari/ NurPhoto

Former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz had remained silent since leaving the army in 2015. Despite taking no clear positions, the former general built a mystique based on his military service.

However, on Tuesday night Gantz launched the campaign of his Israel Resilience Party with a speech during the prime-time evening newscast. The speech itself was unremarkable and filled with platitudes. However, it hit all the right notes for his centrist constituency. Just as importantly, the general looked poised, presidential and yes, commanding.

The image Gantz projected had an electric effect on the Israeli political scene. Snap polls taken the following day showed his party gained several mandates overnight. The newcomer trails the ruling Likud by between nine and six mandates, depending on the poll.

While the Likud is now ahead, this may change in February when Israel’s attorney-general decides whether to indict the prime minister on corruption charges.

In another metric, Gantz appears even more formidable. When asked which individual is most suitable to be prime minister, the Israeli public has regularly ranked Netanyahu far above his rivals. However, a new poll found the two basically tied, with Netanyahu receiving 36%, while 35% preferred Gantz.

Gantz advances

Israel has a proportional representation system and a significant centrist constituency. While it has had its share of centrist parties over the years, most quickly disappeared. Notable examples included the Democratic Movement for Change, which won 15 seats in 1977 and quickly disintegrated.

The Centre Party, which had a brief moment in the late 1990s. That central spot has recently been occupied by the Yesh Atid party, which won 11 seats in the last election.

The one true success story, albeit a temporary one, was Kadima, formed by legendary general Ariel Sharon. The party was formed by that prime minister in 2005 in order to facilitate a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and it remained in power until 2009.

The question now arises: is Gantz yet another centrist flash in the pan, or can he genuinely challenge the Likud? Victory is a tall order. The Likud has been the dominant party since it first came to power in 1977.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

In addition, Netanyahu has now been the longest consecutively serving prime minister in Israeli history.

His political performance in the last few years has been masterful. The wily premier has laid a string of successful traps for his rivals, destroying competitors within the party and neutering the other right-wing parties.

Though the challenges are many, there are reasons to believe Gantz is the real thing. The charismatic general is impervious to Netanyahu’s customary attacks on less substantial competitors. The long-serving Likud leader likes to boast of his superior security and diplomacy experience and belittle the record of his competitors. In security-obsessed Israel, this works well.

However, Gantz has 38 years of military experience. In addition, his performance as Chief of Staff has been almost universally praised among Israelis. Upon his retirement from the military, Netanyahu commended his future rival, noting: “I have seen you in very challenging circumstances and what stood out is your personality … and in the moment of truth, you made the right decision out of prudence, this is what is required of commanders and leaders.”

I’m no dove

Unable to undermine Gantz’s credentials, the Likud has attempted to paint the general as a left-wing extremist. However, these attempts are not gaining traction. A recent poll taken by Channel 13 news found that only 25% of the Israeli public believed the former army chief leans to the left.

Indeed, his speech was unapologetically tough. Gantz said that in the Middle East “only the strong survive” and threatened to teach Iran and Hezbollah a lesson they won’t forget.

Other candidates have used similar language, but coming from the commander in chief who oversaw two aggressive operations against Hamas in Gaza, these threats have more weight. Therefore, the dovish label has not stuck.

His tough image allows the former general to use terminology which appeals to left-wingers without losing ground amongst moderates. Gantz promised that a government under him would pursue peace. The general hinted at a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank when he said: “If there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality. Israel will be not be deprived of its status as a strong, Jewish and democratic state.”

The general hinted at unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank when he said: “If there is no way to reach peace at this time, we will shape a new reality.”

In any event, the former general vowed to keep the Golan Heights, maintain the Jordan Valley as the eastern security border and preserve a united Jerusalem, which the United States recognized as the capital of Israel in May 2018.

Perhaps most compellingly, Gantz naturally projects a reassuring leadership quality which appeals to traditional Israeli aesthetics. This is an intangible yet crucial thing in the age of mass and social media.

Gantz’s background and mannerisms bring to mind the mythical collectivist and egalitarian Israeli past.

There was nothing remarkable about his call for “new leadership, which will create a united, unified, cohesive society.” But when a hardened general from an agricultural settlement says it, Israelis believe it more. To middle Israel, his demeanor is reminiscent of the men who led Israel in its glory days, such as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. 

Gantz’s positive image contrasts with that of the current prime minister. Netanyahu is up to his neck in three investigations, at least one of which is likely to lead to a corruption indictment, and to many symbolizes a craven and self-serving political culture.

Gantz drove home the point, accusing the prime minister of converting Israeli values into “the mannerisms of a French royal house.” Meanwhile, the former general, unsullied as of yet by partisan politics and self-serving maneuvers, can strive to represent more lofty collective values.

It was unclear if Gantz can deliver on his considerable promise. But one thing is for certain, Netanyahu has not faced a rival as formidable as Gantz in many years.

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