LESS THAN A YEAR after the last IDF operation in Gaza “Protective Edge”, a memorial concert was held for the victims on both sides in Kibbutz kfar Azza, near the border. An Israeli orchestra and choir performed Mozart’s Requiem — an apt tribute to the thousands of victims — and the presence of a few Gaza residents who’d received permits to enter Israel made the event all the more moving.
But one visitor to the concert, who entered silently and took his seat near the front, could not be missed, towering head and shoulders above the rest: Benny Gantz.
Gantz had retired from his position as IDF Chief of Staff just four months earlier, in February 2015. Ironically, he was the commander-in-chief of the forces that entered Gaza to thwart the threat of cross-border terror tunnels dug by Hamas in the summer of 2014. Should his presence here be understood as a political statement? I wondered at the time. In retrospect, perhaps it should have. But Gantz didn’t utter a political word back then, and scarcely has ever since.
His decision to join politics earlier this year (not in a grand press conference but through whispers and leaks to the press), has made the former general Israel’s dark horse. On December 27, Gantz registered his new party as “Hossen l’Israel (power to Israel)”. The latest political speculation predicts him running on a joint ticket with his predecessor chief of staff and former commander, ex-defence minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon.
According to recent polls, a party led by Gantz is expected to win 15 or 16 seats in the Knesset, making it the second or third largest parliamentary faction, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and almost tied with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. An alliance between Gantz and Lapid, the polls indicate, could plausibly dethrone Netanyahu after a decade in office.
Old alliances have already started to fracture in the early days of the campaign – Labor leader Gabbay has dumped Hatnua chair Tzipi Livni and Education minister Naftali Bennett has created a new right-wing party.
Itzik Shmuli, a popular legislator with the Labor Party, told Ynet news website on January 1 that his party will do “anything it can” to join forces with Gantz, but admitted that “Benny Gantz still needs to say what he wants. He hasn’t yet said anything.”
Does he support the two-state solution or oppose it? Is he a capitalist or a socialist? No one seems to know, and many apparently don’t seem to care. On Facebook, a fake event was created, scheduled for April 10, a day after elections. “Benny Gantz exposes his opinions,” the title read.
So what does Gantz think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does he support the two-state solution or oppose it? Is he a capitalist or a socialist? No one seems to know, and many apparently don’t seem to care. On Facebook, a fake event was created, scheduled for April 10, a day after elections. “Benny Gantz exposes his opinions,” the title read.
If Israel’s political history is any guide, Gantz’s silence is completely understandable. Former chiefs of staff like as Shaul Mofaz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak rose quickly in the local political scene but failed to deliver on their promise.
Three months before the general elections, Gantz rightfully fears early burnout. “I was raised in the paratroopers,” he was quoted last weekend by Haaretz political analyst Yossi Verter. “If I learned something there, it’s that when the time comes to charge forward, you do it with full force and in short range.”
Gantz began his military career in 1977 as a paratrooper, climbing the command ladder to lead brigades and divisions on the Lebanon border and in the West Bank. He became commander of the Israeli Northern Command in 2001, then military attaché to the US from 2005-09, and finally deputy chief of staff. His appointment as Chief of Staff in February 2011 seemed only natural, after his main rival Yoav Galant (the current housing minister and member of Kulanu party) was disqualified.
Two major military operations in Gaza took place during Gantz’s tenure: Pillar of Defense (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). But how does Gantz view the solution to the Gaza predicament today? In October, he announced his endorsement of a new strategic plan for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, put forward by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a leading Israeli think-tank.
“I was raised in the paratroopers,” he was quoted as saying. “If I learned something there, it’s that when the time comes to charge forward, you do it with full force and in short range.”
The plan is pessimistic about progress on the diplomatic track but puts forward a series of unilateral moves by Israel to incrementally separate from the Palestinians. The plan focuses on the West Bank, intentionally ignoring Jerusalem and Gaza.
If indeed the INSS plan reflects Gantz’s outlook on the conflict, it would put him at odds with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently favoured the status quo over dramatic change. Both Netanyahu and Gantz, however, seem to share a sense of pessimism over the prospect of renewed negotiations with the PLO.
If anything, Gantz’s remarkable success in the polls indicates how distrustful Israelis are of their political system. To the left of the Likud, floating in that ambiguous space known as the political centre, dozens of Knesset seats are ripe for the picking. But the new leader, it would seem, should be someone Israelis know little about, because the leaders they do know about have fared quite poorly.
Israel’s early elections could trigger new Gaza violence (Al-Monitor)
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu with former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, during a graduation ceremony of navy officers in Haifa, September, 2013 (Dan Balilty/AP)