Israel’s Gantz is not Netanyahu. Is that enough?

Why We Wrote This

In politics, is it enough to run against someone without advocating a positive alternative? It’s a question for Democrats struggling to present a united front, and for Israelis looking to unseat Netanyahu.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, attends an election campaign event in Kfar Ahim, Israel, Sept. 16, 2019.

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The dilemma of how to face down a polarizing incumbent is hardly unique to Israel’s election cycle – it has also flummoxed Democrats arguing over moderate versus progressive messages, and establishment versus rebel candidates.

On March 2 Israelis vote for a third time inside of a year, after the centrist Blue and White party led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and the rightist Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known as “Bibi,” finished neck and neck in the last two rounds.

Mr. Gantz has tapped into what’s known in Israel as “just not Bibi” sentiment, uniting Israelis on the center-left who for years have disdained Mr. Netanyahu, now indicted on corruption charges, as well as moderate right-wingers who have grown tired of the longest serving prime minister’s domineering style. But so far, Mr. Gantz’s pitch has not been enough to win, and he and his party, occupying the tricky political ground of Israel’s center, face the question of what principles they stand for.

The polls show an enduring deadlock.

“It’s going to be hard to convince someone who has been voting for Bibi for years with an anti-Bibi message. They need some substance,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert.

The Blue and White party billboards adorning Israel’s thoroughfares neatly distill the essence of centrist prime ministerial candidate Benny Gantz’s pitch to voters.

On one side stares the chiseled visage of the former military chief of staff alongside the caption “Looks After Israel.” On the opposite panel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on multiple corruption charges, glances sideways into the text “Looks After Himself (Court Trial April 2020).”

With Mr. Netanyahu, known as “Bibi” by friend and foe alike, clinging to power, Mr. Gantz, a former army chief of staff and a political neophyte, has mounted the most serious threat the Israeli leader has faced in more than a decade.

On March 2 Israeli voters will go to the polls for a third time inside of a year, after Blue and White and Mr. Netanyahu’s rightist Likud finished neck and neck in the last two elections.

Mr. Gantz achieved parity in part by tapping into what’s known in Israel as “rak lo Bibi” (“just not Bibi”) sentiment, uniting Israelis on the center-left who have disdained Mr. Netanyahu for years, as well as moderate right-wingers who have grown tired of the longest-serving prime minister’s domineering style.

Mr. Gantz frames Mr. Netanyahu’s criticism of Israeli law enforcement authorities and his battle to avoid trial as a threat to Israel’s democracy and a regression toward authoritarianism. The former general assails the prime minister’s polarizing politics as eroding an element of national resilience – domestic social solidarity.

“We are at a critical hour for democracy. The danger is that we’ll change the government to one of a ruler,” Mr. Gantz said at a campaign rally this week in Ramat Gan, just outside Tel Aviv, invoking the authoritarian rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Instead of having a prime minister, we’ll have an Israeli version of Erdoğan, who is above the law,” he said.

But so far, his pitch has not been enough to unseat Mr. Netanyahu.    

Even as Mr. Gantz has sprung up to become the most viable alternative personality to Mr. Netanyahu, he and his party nevertheless face the question of what principles they want to stand for.

A call for substance

Formed a little over a year ago from the merger of three parties – two of which were brand new – Blue and White is a collection of politicians from the left, right, and center, opening it up to criticism that it is thin on vision and lacks ideological cohesion.

Analysts note that several of the party’s policy positions don’t actually mark a dramatic difference from the Likud.

And on issues of Israel’s national security and relations with the Palestinians – arguably his strongest suit – Mr. Gantz has been vague. At the Ramat Gan rally, he mentioned national security issues only in passing at the end of his speech.

Ahead of the release of President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan, Mr. Gantz endorsed Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, but said he wanted to do it in coordination with the international community – a seeming contradiction that prompted criticism.

“They got the entire anti-Bibi crowd [in the last two rounds] in April and September, but it’s not good enough in order to convince people from the right to change sides,’’ says Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert and an adviser to the predominantly Arab Joint List campaign. “It’s going to be hard to convince someone who has been voting for Bibi for years with an anti-Bibi message. They need some substance.”

The dilemma of how to face down a polarizing incumbent is hardly unique to Israel’s election cycle – it has also flummoxed Democrats in the United States as the presidential field argues over moderate versus progressive messages, and establishment versus rebel candidates.

Oded Balilty/AP
An election campaign billboard for the opposition Blue and White party depicts its leader, Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Ramat Gan, Israel, Feb. 20, 2020.

“There is a parallel,” says Bernard Avishai, a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College and an author of several books on Israeli politics. “In both cases you have heads of government that have violated norms of democratic process by attacking the judiciary, the police, and even the procedures in the [military].”

Blue and White, he says, represents the cosmopolitan secular values of Tel Aviv, and respect for government institutions, such as the Supreme Court, that have been assailed by politicians on the ideological right.

Turnout looming as key

But Mr. Gantz’s campaign is more about finding an alternative to the prime minister than deep-rooted political ideology, says Moti Noyman, a 66-year-old campaign activist at the rally. 

“Most of the people are rak lo Bibi,” he says. Mr. Gantz’s campaign is about an appeal to “people who want a return to sanity – from corruption, polarization, and hate.”

In the final week before the election, a trio of polls have shown Likud overtaking Blue and White by a small margin. Despite the momentum swing, the same polls still show a deadlocked parliament, with neither Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing parties, nor a combination of center, left, and Arab parties, controlling an absolute majority.

Experts say public opinion has barely shifted over the successive campaigns, and victory will be determined by which side has the best turnout on election day. With the Israeli public increasingly exasperated with the stalemate, voter participation, which ticked up in September, could take a hit.

Mr. Netanyahu has spent the last two weeks barnstorming the country to sound the call to his base.

At the Blue and White rally, supporters criticized Mr. Gantz for not coming up with a more energetic response and for not doing enough to seize the agenda. The party has tried to get more aggressive, releasing a TV ad splicing Mr. Netanyahu’s voice into a video of Turkish President Erdoğan.

“I don’t know if they are up to [the challenge of] fighting against Benjamin Netanyahu,” says retiree Smadar Shiff, saying Mr. Gantz is too reluctant to become involved in mudslinging. As to what Mr. Gantz would bring to office, she says, “Liberalism and getting things done.”

Occupying the center

Over the three consecutive campaigns, Mr. Gantz and Blue and White have tried to occupy the tricky political real estate of the Israeli center and trained their sights on appealing to moderate right-wing voters.

That is in part because a plurality of Israeli Jews identify themselves as right wing, and the left wing never recovered from the collapse of successive Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“Given that there’s an ideological void waiting to be filled with centrist ideals,” he says, “it was a business opportunity waiting to be exploited.”

But outside of attacks on Mr. Netanyahu’s character, that has forced the party also to largely avoid sensitive and alienating issues, such as negotiations on a two-state solution with the Palestinians, or accepting support from the Joint List, and to speak almost in code on socioeconomic issues to distinguish Blue and White from Likud.

For example, it has highlighted promises to invest more in Israel’s health and education systems, and solve the country’s clogged transportation system. “That’s code for: ‘I’m not investing in the settlements,’” says Professor Avishai.

According to Ms. Scheindlin, the public opinion expert, Mr. Gantz has missed an opportunity by focusing almost exclusively on rak lo bibi. Blue and White’s conservative positions on national security have largely failed to lure right-wing voters, but a deeper focus on shared democratic values might work.  

“To think you can talk smack about Netanyahu and woo right wing voters is clumsy,” she says. “People on both sides of the partisan divide can agree on the ground rules for liberal democracy.”

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