It doesn’t take a great deal of cynicism to dismiss the latest Great Hope of the Israeli center-left: former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who will be eligible to seek public office when his three-year “cooling off” period ends in early 2019. In 2013, there was talk of Ehud Olmert returning to challenge Netanyahu; after that, Gabi Ashkenazi, who also served as the IDF Chief of Staff, assumed the role of the savior; other names that have been discussed include Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and (somewhat more implausibly than the rest) former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
But such is the state of the Israeli opposition that Gantz indeed represents the great and only hope to win the next election, should it take place after his cooling off period ends.
In Ha’aretz last weekend, columnist Uri Misgav correctly diagnosed the problems of the largest opposition bloc, the Zionist Union. They have been too desperate to win the approval of the Likud government to join the coalition that they now lack a coherent reason for being. While Zionist Union co-chair and Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay has wisely corrected course from his sudden shift to the right last year, he now commands little respect among his MKs and supporters. His standing among the general public isn’t much better; recent polls have Zionist Union trailing Likud and Yesh Atid when it’s not trailing Likud, Yesh Atid, and the Joint List.
Misgav, though, is too quick to dismiss Gantz, whom he says merely “wants to be defense minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet.” The unfortunate truth is that the center-left lacks the time to develop a convincing narrative before an election, which is likely to happen sooner rather than later, as the likelihood of upcoming prime ministerial indictments increases by the day. It needs a credible leader, and Gantz for the all the obvious reasons fits the bill perfectly: a well-regarded former IDF Chief of Staff who, unlike Gabi Ashkenazi, doesn’t have a damaging political scandal like the Harpaz Affair weighing him down.
Gantz is reportedly considering three options: joining Yesh Atid, joining Zionist Union, or forming his own party.
The first would be a mistake: Lapid’s stock has fallen precipitously in recent months. His most recent initiative to pressure the Trump administration to recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights smacks of desperate and marginal one-upmanship; previously, Lapid had warned that Israel was alienating American liberals.
Lapid’s support for the government-backed Haredi draft bill that passed the Knesset yesterday is another reason for Gantz to avoid Yesh Atid. Despite the flashy looks and expensive political consultants, it’s a one-man operation, and said man is making miserable political miscalculations. Contrary to Lapid’s recent statements, the draft bill is far weaker than the one he spearheaded after the 2013 election and represents a boon to the ultra-Orthodox political establishment: if it’s accepted as a legitimate compromise by the High Court, it may well mark the end of the campaign to “share the burden” of military service across Jewish society in Israel.
A worse option, though, would be to form a new party. Adding yet another centrist opposition party to the field will only ensure Likud finishes comfortably in first. If the opposition is to sway, say, one of the ultra-Orthodox parties into supporting their bid to form a coalition, it must at least score a convincing victory over Likud and earn the first chance to form a government. Additionally, the Knesset has a surfeit of personality-based parties as it is: Yesh Atid, Kulanu, and Yisrael Beiteinu. The next Knesset is expected to add at least one more, a party led by Orly Levy.
Instead, Gantz should join the opposition party whose stock has suffered a much worse fate than that of Yesh Atid: Labor, which joined forces with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah in 2014 to form the Zionist Union. Although Avi Gabbay denies offering Gantz the party’s nomination for prime minister, there is hope for the opposition if this does come about.
Gabbay, despite my overall dissatisfaction with his leadership, is an admirable figure who doesn’t deserve to be humiliated in a general election. Zionist Union has consistently polled at 15 seats or below the last few months, and while no extensive polling has been done on a Gantz-led Zionist Union, one poll gives reason for optimism: in April, a survey published in Walla! showed Gantz maintaining Zionist Union’s strength at 24 mandates, with Likud at 28.
While an opposition party would ideally like to be leading in the polls against a prime minister cornered by three serious corruption inquiries, there is no available alternative that comes close to Gantz’s numbers. Therefore, Gabbay should step aside and allow Gantz to lead the party into the next election. If there is an election prior to February 2019, Gabbay should step aside soon after to allow Gantz to be the party’s candidate for Prime Minister.
Of course, Gantz is hardly invulnerable. He may not have the political baggage of Gabi Ashkenazi, but his record is still open to serious questioning. Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which he oversaw as the IDF’s Chief of Staff, is not remembered as an unmitigated success. We should expect the Likud’s campaign to cherry pick aspects of the comprehensive 2017 State Comptroller report on the conflict that harm Gantz, while conveniently ignoring the numerous failings of the government. Gantz may also find it difficult to attract the recommendations of members of the Joint List, whose constituents may regard Gantz as a war criminal.
Some will surely say that Labor does not need a quick savior, but someone who will slowly build an attractive brand for the party. I don’t doubt this is true, and I’m open to Gabbay serving in that role for the next few years. But an election is a clear numbers game and there is little sense in being decimated. Unlike in professional sports, there is no reward for a losing season in the form of a propitious draft pick. Israelis also deserve a credible and realistic alternative to Likud, which has veered far to the right and is infected by corruption at the top. It appears Benny Gantz is in the best position to assume this role.