Yoni Leviatan
How to be Jewish: Be good. The end.

Israel’s best hope? Trading Benjamins

Election posters hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a Hebrew slogan reading 'Netanyahu cares only for himself', ahead of the Israeli elections. February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Election posters hung by the Blue and White party shows their candidate Benny Gantz and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a Hebrew slogan reading 'Netanyahu cares only for himself', ahead of the Israeli elections. February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The one and only thing Israelis agree on today is that we are in a crisis of massive proportions.

Actually, there are two things. The rest of the story – who’s to blame, how to fix it – is where the animosity rises to what Israelis also agree is the highest level of baseless hatred in the country’s modern history.

After residents in the north and the south spent part of the Passover holiday in bomb shelters while two Israeli sisters were shot to death in the West Bank for the unforgivable crime of driving there, along with their mother who is still fighting for her life, followed by another attack the same night on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, Israelis need to forget about assigning blame and focus on the harder task of finding solutions before we lose a lifetime of investment in this miracle we call a Jewish state.

We have many, many problems which need urgent solving but we should start with the most serious and dangerous one of all – our prime minister is compromised.

Not by a foreign entity, but a legal one.

It doesn’t matter how much support for Netanyahu’s policies or love for the man himself his dwindling admirers may feel. Benjamin Netanyahu has proven over and over and over again that he will put his personal interests, both legal and financial, miles ahead of any conflicting state interests or those of its citizens.

We are seeing the consequences of this play out in our national security, economic future, social cohesion and foreign relations – most critically with the United States – all of which have contributed to a dramatic decline in Israel’s strategic posture globally and at home.

There is no foreseeable way out of this mess until we replace our current leader with someone who exudes the two most important traits needed in an Israeli prime minister now more than ever: virtuoso security acumen combined with unifying leadership.

Everything else – the economy, education, religion, society – will fall into place if we find a leader who ticks those two boxes. Luckily, there is somebody out there who fits the bill perfectly that also goes by the name Benjamin, but without all the corruption, divisive politics and fear of making big decisions.

So don’t call him Bibi.

The rise of Benjamin “Benny” Gantz

There’s a very good reason Benny Gantz’s poll numbers are skyrocketing in every way. In the latest Channel 13 poll, his National Unity party has shot into first place with 29 Knesset seats to Likud’s third-place 20 – its worst showing since 2006.

In the most reliable poll question of all – who do you prefer as PM? – Bibi is trailing Benny significantly, 51% to 34% in favor of Gantz.

But why Benny Gantz instead of Yair Lapid who already proved himself to be quite competent as prime minister during his four months at the helm of a caretaker government, even managing to squeeze in a successful campaign in Gaza that took out the military leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group?

Because Lapid doesn’t tick the second box after building his career on the back of anti-Haredi politics.

Actually, he doesn’t really tick the first one either, serving a noble but combat-free role during his military service followed by a career in the field of journalism. He gained much experience in the past decade in politics but it will never be the 38-year military career of General Gantz culminating in his role as IDF Chief of Staff for four years – before being asked by PM Netanyahu to stay on for a fifth.

Virtuoso security acumen

The reason Bibi extended his term is because Benny Gantz had the most brilliant of military careers that truly does place him in another league. Interestingly enough, his first mission as a conscript was protecting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his groundbreaking pilgrimage to Israel in search of peace – a possible harbinger of things to come?

More likely wishful thinking considering the external circumstances. But should the moment arise where opportunity sparks, it’s hard to imagine a better person than Gantz to grab it based on his long record of knowing when to use the carrot and when to use the stick.

While serving as defense minister in the previous government he received much flack from right-wing Israelis for meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his home to discuss security issues with the goal of saving lives on both sides. However, this was consistent with his approach to the Palestinians since his time as the IDF’s top commander.

During his first campaign for political office, Gantz put out a video that highlighted the destruction he led against Hamas in Gaza’s wars. For this he received just as much flack from left-wing Israelis for boasting about kill numbers even though he’s also the kind of general who has snowball fights with everyday Palestinians who pose no threat.

So is Gantz a warrior or peacemaker?

Both. That’s the point.

Gantz isn’t out for blood or land or anything else in the Wild Wild East except security and prosperity. Peace would be nice but not at any price, as he’s made clear repeatedly in words and in actions.

At the same time, there’s no reason to make things worse unnecessarily. The only way to thread the Palestinian needle is with a delicate balance of tough security and economic prosperity. It also requires carrying both out while retaining a respectable level of dignity, for their sake and ours. Ignoring either side of that equation doesn’t work.

One thing made clear by the current Netanyahu government is there are very few people willing to work that equation and even less who know how. We see that with every rocket and terrorist attack which breaks through the deterrence achieved by the previous government’s elimination of the PIJ commanders.

Gantz was the defense minister behind that move but he’s not the only one who could’ve made it. If security acumen was all that was missing, Israel could easily reach into its bullpen of superb fighters experienced enough to fill the role. But the issue with Israel’s current government goes far deeper than security.

Unifying leadership

Bibi’s problem isn’t security knowhow. He knows what needs to be done and he knows how to do it. His problem is a personal one that leads him to make decisions in direct contrast to the interests of the state.

That’s why he focused the most effort during his first 100 days in office trying to pass bills designed for his singular financial needs, legal troubles and political survival instead of trying to prevent the security mess we just experienced, again, during the Passover and Ramadan holidays circled on the calendar every year.

It’s also why he’s determined to keep the nation divided to the core so he can conquer his personal freedom from potential incarceration – a development that places Israel’s security interests second for the first time in history.

Israel’s unique strategic depth is its social cohesion. As any student of Abraham Lincoln knows, “a nation divided cannot stand,” and certainly not a nation with a citizen army.

When Israel’s best-trained fighters and pilots are threatening to refuse service for the first time in history, it’s a sign of something different than any previous societal discord. This is no longer a left/right debate. It’s a growing fissure more dangerous than Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran combined.

This is the best reason to put your money on Benny – he’s the only person in politics with a better-than-decent shot at unifying the people just enough to move forward.

We don’t need to unify everyone from the far-right to the far-left. They’ll meet anyway at the end of the horseshoe.

The reason Benny Gantz is the guy is because Israel is a centrist country, as I wrote a few years back when Gantz first announced the formation of his Blue and White party heading into the 2019 elections.

The fact of the matter is, even though Israelis tend to identify as right-wing or left-wing, 75% of the country is solidly in the center. This bears out in poll questions concerning issues ranging from the economy to social policies to security and even peace. Gantz acknowledged as much when he said “70% of Israelis agree on 70% of the issues.”

That’s why there’s not a huge difference in policy between Lapid’s center-left party, Gantz’s centrist party and the sane half of Netanyahu’s center-right Likud. Those three parties alone represent 68 seats in the current Knesset, a solid majority that can also include Labor if one wishes to bring in a few more. Again, there’s not a huge difference on the major issues even with them.

There are many Likud voters – about 10 seats worth according to polls – who recognize they are in bed with people who have wildly divergent worldviews and would be far better off in a unity government formed around the center. The problem is Netanyahu is running Likud for the benefit of Bibi, not for the benefit of Israelis or even the benefit of Likud.

You can also add the Haredim to the mix since they’re ambivalent about security issues and appeased fairly easily with subsidies for their constituents, a highly contentious issue in its own right but one that will be better solved with the Haredim at the table.

Gantz is smart enough to know this. That’s why he’s been the only leader in the anti-Bibi camp who has gone out of his way to keep good relations with them. Benny grew up in a religious household. He dons tefillin more than most and fasts on Tisha B’av, even when there’s a war going on.

That’s why the Haredim like Benny. Despite not being one of them, there’s a feeling he understands them which is what people want first and foremost from their leaders – to feel heard.

Put another way, they’re not threatened by him like they are with Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom made careers out of hating the Haredim. Now more than ever, we need some kind of truce between secular and religious Israelis who have deep, deep disagreements about the nature of the country and the direction it should be taking.

Is there anyone else out there with both the security credentials and social acceptance verging on admiration by both secular and religious Israelis?

One more thing

If that’s still not enough, Benny Gantz provides an extremely rare bonus in Israeli politics – he’s rock-solid consistent in his beliefs, deeds and promises.

Even when he breaks them.

Many voters on the Left exhibit a visceral resentment toward Gantz for going back on his original campaign promise never to sit in a Bibi-led government. They’re being extremely unfair in their criticism.

The country had suffered its third election in two years just three weeks into the covid pandemic when everyone was still wiping down groceries and scared to sneeze outside. It’s easy to forget now but there was a real, legitimate panic and fear that set in across the world, not only about the virus but all the collateral economic damage it was causing.

Consistency isn’t a virtue when it’s rigid beyond repair. Gantz went back on his word knowing full well that he was setting himself up for political ridicule and possible obsolescence come the next round of elections. He chose to suck it up and put the state’s interests ahead of his own, forming a national unity government with a thrice-indicted prime minister.

With the quality and quantity of threats the country is now facing, we cannot afford a prime minister who’s too cowardly to anger their base. We need a prime minister who puts the national interest above their political survival. Gantz is consistent not because he’s never broken a promise but because he embodies his campaign slogan and puts Israel before all, even when he knows it will hurt him politically.

It’s also worth highlighting his consistency of message, demonstrated prophetically in an interview to Times of Israel a week before his first election. Here are a few quotes as prescient as they are relevant to the moment we are in:

The Blue and White leader framed next week’s elections in the starkest of terms: a binary choice between the Zionist vision of a democratic and secure Jewish state under his leadership, and a rapid spiral under Netanyahu toward a version of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey — with a leader who won’t budge and who gradually brings the judges, the cops, and the press under his enforced control.

In Gantz’s own words:

What did Erdogan do? He made sure that you can’t investigate him, and you can’t put him on trial, and not his family either. You are going to get the Israeli version of the Turkish system. It won’t be the same, it will be something like it. That’s what will happen here.

And my favorite, his views on the Haredim, who secular Israelis must find a way forward with if Israel has any hope of maintaining its status as an economic and military powerhouse in the future:

Whoever forms the government will also want the ultra-Orthodox to be with him. Not just because of political considerations but, in my opinion, because they are a significant part of Israeli society. More than a million people. And I will not ignore them. We want them to be part of the economy, part of society. I am also in favor of protecting the Torah and Torah-study and yeshivas. I am not opposed, I just want there to be a balance between what they do for themselves as a specific sector and how they are part of the general society. And I am convinced that after all the noise, we will be able to start talking afresh.

This is not a man who got into politics to feed his ego or his pocketbook. This is a reasoned man who has thought deeply about the many challenges Israel must contend with now and down the road. This is a man who isn’t afraid to rock the boat with his own base in the best interests of the country.

Most importantly, this is a man – the only one – with a very real chance at unifying Israel’s warring tribes back into a cohesive unit that is capable of functioning and cooperating for the betterment of the state.

What Gantz’s rising star symbolizes is that Israelis are finally beginning to understand after five terms and too many years that we don’t need a prime minister Benjamin with an American accent. We need a prime minister Benjamin with a deep understanding of Israel’s unique security needs who isn’t viscerally hated by half the country at the same time.

And though we don’t need American English in an Israeli prime minister, we do need a leader who understands the enormous, unmatchable value of America’s relationship to Israel’s past, present and future. Ideally, it should also be someone who half of America doesn’t hate either for disrespecting their half of the country.

Who better than Israel’s former military attaché to the United States, Benjamin “Benny” Gantz, to carry out such a task?

No one. Israel’s best hope out of the current morass is simply to trade Benjamins.

The sooner the better.

About the Author
Yoni Leviatan is a British-born, American-raised, Israeli-blooded musician, content producer and writer. His songs have been licensed to MTV, CNN, ESPN, PBS and others while receiving nationwide airplay on over 200 American radio stations. His production work has led to projects with Warner Bros., Waves Audio, Abbey Road Studios, YouTube and Spotify. Originally from Coral Springs, Florida, he's been living in Tel Aviv since 2009 where he spends his free time writing about Israel and politics with articles featured in Newsweek, Times of Israel and The Forward.
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