Right, Left, Right

Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP Images

Benny Gantz speaks in Tel Aviv, Israel. 

Our cat was sleeping quietly on the couch in our Jerusalem apartment when Benny Gantz's campaign jingle, whatsapped to us by a flack, started playing, "There's no more right or left / Just Israel before all else." 

The cat leapt from the couch and fled in a blur through the cat flap.

I don't claim that the feline understood the words. I do think he understood the music coming from Gantz's insurgent candidacy better than a great many of the Israeli pundits who rushed to praise the ex-general's heavily orchestrated campaign opener. 

Gantz's speech came after weeks and months in which he stubbornly refused to say a word about his positions, even as public support for him grew—based, it seems, entirely on his military career, national name recognition, a reasonable smile, and a worldwide, dangerous desire for political saviors who are not a politicians. Before the speech Gantz's new party, Israel Resilience, was already in second place in the polls behind Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud. The combination of silence and popularity brought extraordinary attention to Gantz's opening campaign speech, including live broadcasts of the full speech on the major TV channels—a gift of free publicity not granted to other candidates.  

In end-of-the-week polls after Gantz spoke, support for his party surged. Virtually an equal number of respondents named him and Netanyahu as best suited to be prime minister. Much of the media commentary affirmed that he is, indeed, neither left nor right.

This is nonsense. By the Israeli standards of right and left, Gantz's speech put him firmly right of center. The overture and the coda were militaristic. The words that set Gantz apart from the current government were his broadside at Netanyahu's manner of governing. This, and the growing sense that he's electable, are the strongest reason for Gantz's rise in the polls. 

Yes, electability matters greatly, and so does ending the Netanyahu era. But without a substantial political vision, electability produces a very thin kind of hope for change. Without evidence that the “electable” candidate has the ability to govern, the hope is an even thinner and trepidation is greater. 

Even before Netanyahu called early elections for April 9, new parties were climbing into the arena. Nearly all have been called centrist, meaning little more than that they take vague stands or no stand on the future of the occupied territories and that they appeal to voters tired of Netanyahu. Gantz, who retired as military chief of staff in 2015, got particularly intense attention despite—or because of—his long silence and the fact that he has never held civilian office. He has not been sullied by gaffes, difficult compromises, or any other experience in real politics. 

His first election videos, released in late January, should already have clarified what the “centrist” label means when applied to Gantz. One showed footage of the ravaged cityscape of Gaza after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. The grim soundtrack was fit for an antiwar documentary—but the subtitles boasted about how many targets the army hit under Gantz's command and gave an exaggerated total for the number of enemy fighters killed. The clip's final claim is that there have been three and a half years of quiet on the Gaza border since the war, followed by the slogan, “Only the Strong Win.” Besides ignoring Palestinian suffering in besieged Gaza and the repeated flare-ups on the border, the video defined victory as a lull in an unsolvable conflict. In another video, meant to be the dovish balance, Gantz's deep voice says that “it's no disgrace to strive for peace”—but adds that Israel will apparently need to send its young people to fight for another 50 years.

Gantz's televised speech struck similar tones—starting with his warnings not to test Israel, directed personally to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. Then he declared that as prime minister he would “not miss an opportunity for peace”—and also that he would continue construction in the larger West Bank settlements and would keep Jerusalem united. 

His coda was inviting to the stage former defense minister Moshe Yaalon, who just concluded an agreement to run on Gantz's ticket. Yaalon served as Netanyahu's defense minister, quit in 2016, and has become an outspoken critic of the prime minister's character. Yaalon is also a hawk whose preconditions for a peace agreement fall well short of a fully sovereign Palestinian state.

Combined, this is meant as music for the relatively moderate side of the right-wing electorate: people who say that in principle Israel should seek peace with the Palestinians—but who don't believe there's a chance of getting to an agreement. In the long meantime, they depend on military answers. 

To be fair, the speech did include some well-intended, or well-focus-grouped, positions on domestic affairs: promises to stop starving the schools and the national health-care system, promises to support full equality for the LGBTQ community and to remove all glass ceilings for women. Gantz's economic pledges will ring truer if he accompanies them with criticism of the privatization, tax cuts, and other coddling of the wealthy that have starved what was once a welfare state. The promises on women would sound more honest if Gantz weren't belatedly looking around for some women to add to his party's list of candidates for parliament.

But the core of his appeal to voters was his attack on Netanyahu, almost without mentioning the prime minister's name. The current government, he said, “promotes incitement and divisiveness” and behaves like “French royalty” of the kind that said, “L'État, c'est moi.” Gantz promised that his own government would not be one of “masters and servants” or of “indecent gifts”—a reference to the vast amounts of champagne and expensive cigars that the Netanyahu family has received from tycoons. He pledged not to incite against the police, courts, and media, as Netanyahu does. He dismissed as “ridiculous” the idea that someone could serve as prime minister while under indictment—which would likely be Netanyahu's status if re-elected.

Netanyahu's response was to label Gantz a leftist. 

By one peculiar definition, he was correct. As Yaalon defined the terms last summer, “Today someone who supports Netanyahu is right-wing. Someone who doesn't or criticizes him is left-wing. So ... it seems I'm a leftie.” This was meant ironically, to explain how even he was under attack from Netanyahu as a leftist. It's an accurate picture of the prime minister's tactics. By that definition, and only by that definition, could Gantz be considered anything but right-wing.

In essence, Gantz is making pitches to three audiences: to voters who want a hawkish prime minister with personal integrity; to voters for whom the liberal promises on social issues are more important than Gantz's evident disbelief in the possibility of peace, and to voters who may be abstractly sick of the occupation but are physically nauseous at the thought of Netanyahu staying in their lives. To the last group his promise is: I am electable. Anyone for whom ending the occupation is more visceral—and who pays attention to Gantz's messaging—is likely to vote for one of the small parties of the left.

The polling so far suggests that Gantz is not getting very far with the rightwing constituency. The Likud's share of the vote has remained stable. That could change. Gantz's gains have been at the cost of other parties in the fragmented opposition. If the trend continues, especially if Gantz succeeds in convincing one or more those parties to run on a joint ticket with him, it's possible he could get more votes than Netanyahu, and that he could form the next government.

If that happens, Israel will get a prime minister who isn't under police investigation, who declares full fealty to its damaged internal institutions of democracy, and who seems far too unconcerned with the most pressing threat to that democracy—the occupation. His ability to manage a coalition or create consensus will be untested and unknown at the outset. This is reason for hope, I suppose, of a rather dilute and unintoxicating kind, mixed with apprehension and great longing for a better choice.

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