In an election cycle already full of new parties, no first-time candidate has generated quite as much buzz as former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. That Gantz has been so talked about while doing very little talking himself says a lot. Nearly a month after elections were called, the general-cum-politician has kept mostly quiet about many issues, instead offering sweeping statements about things like the the need for a “different discourse.” Nevertheless, Israelis across the political map — typically divided by partisan rancor — seem to agree on one thing: they see Benny Gantz as left-wing.
Earlier today, Gantz made his most precise comments on the campaign trail thus far. At a Druze protest outside his home, Gantz promised to “correct” the Nation-State Law, the controversial new basic law that roiled Israel’s Druze and Palestinian minorities when it passed last year. But it’s not clear what it would mean to “correct” the provocative legislation. Would a Prime Minister Gantz restore the official status of the Arabic language? Preserve the existing text while including more egalitarian rhetoric from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? Something else entirely?
To his credit, Gantz won the support of Israeli Druze General Amal Asad (himself a longtime Likudnik), who helped organize demonstrations against the Nation-State Law when it was enacted last year. And promising to “correct” the Nation-State Law certainly puts Gantz at odds with many Israeli right-wingers, but without a more exact policy prescription it does not do much to help place the retired general and his Hosen Leyisrael party on the ideological map. True, Hayemin Hehadash’s Ayelet Shaked wasted no time after Gantz’s remarks to call him out for affiliating with the left (a high crime to some in the contemporary Israeli political landscape). But it was Naftali Bennett, also of Hayemin Hehadash and by no means a leftist, who called for the Nation-State to be amended back in July in order for satisfy the concerns of the Druze community. But Bennett was also light on specifics, and no amendment panned out before the dissolution of the most recent government.
Beyond his comments on the Nation-State Law, Gantz’s most explicit statements are from a 2018 interview which resurfaced two weeks ago in which he commits to holding onto certain West Bank settlements (his choice of settlements seemed semi-random). It is conventional wisdom that a two-state solution could be achieved with mutually agreed land swaps, allowing for the retention of as much of 80 percent of settlers without evacuations. And if some settlers do need to be uprooted, Gantz is not going to talk loudly about it less than three months before Israelis head to the polls. Still, Gantz stopped short of even mentioning “separation,” the safe Israeli code-word for a two-state policy, and his comments could easily be adapted to fit Area C annexation programs pushed by Bennett and others. This is not to say that Gantz supports a single state or annexation — it is doubtful he does — but framing Gantz as a two-state proponent is still a mostly speculative exercise.
Given how much of Gantz’s and Hosen Leyisrael’s platform remains open-ended, it bears assessing why many on both sides of the political spectrum are so eager to ascribe a specific set of principles to the former general.
It’s easier to explain why the center-left bloc wants to claim Gantz as their own. Career military officers have a history of political success in Israel. Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were also IDF chiefs of staff, and Ariel Sharon was a high-ranking general. Other accomplished officers have held influential cabinet portfolios. Adding a recognizable general to the center-left’s roster would be a major boon. While no poll shows Hosen Leyisrael surpassing Likud, surveys show Gantz as the second-most preferable candidate for the premiership (after incumbent Netanyahu) by a sizable margin. There is certainly reason to see Gantz as fitting somewhere in the center-left sphere: his comments on the Nation-State Law and settlements, while vague, could certainly be construed in such a way. Additionally, much of the retired Israeli military establishment is known to support an eventual two-state agreement of some kind. The problem is that there is really no way of being sure about Gantz without a clear platform, while talk of a unified center-left movement is illusory as of now. Tzipi Livni is alone in subordinating her personal ambitions to the demands of an anti-Netanyahu campaign, and there is talk of a merger between her Hatnuah party and Yesh Atid. But Hosen Leyisrael has resisted joining any existing faction, including the rump Zionist Union (Labor Party).
The right’s motivations for characterizing Gantz as left-wing are more complex. The prime minister and his allies are concerned that Hosen Leyisrael will recruit center-right Likud voters who previously went with Netanyahu by default because they accepted him as the stable option and because they were neither right-wing ideologues interested in a party like Habayit Hayehudi nor comfortable with the moniker of “center-left.” Flirtations between Gantz and former Defense Minister and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon (an avowed one-stater), as well as Gantz’s general tepidness in taking a definitive stance, suggest this is exactly the constituency Hosen Leyisrael is aiming for.
Indeed, the term “leftist” has become something of a taboo in mainstream Israeli politics, with only social-democratic Meretz and communist Hadash (both small parties) loudly embracing it. Israel’s early political landscape had been dominated by explicitly socialist parties, but the 1967 Six-Day War and the advent of privatization in subsequent decades reoriented the left-right spectrum to revolve around the status of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Oslo process in the 1990s was supposed to be the Israeli left’s grand project, definitively resolving the Palestinian question. Its failure to achieve this monumental objective within a five-year time frame, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Second Intifada, and the wars in Gaza saw the left’s ideological program tarnished wholesale. Nearly ten years of Netanyahu have generated at least the veneer of long-term stability within the Green Line. Thus, naming Gantz as a leftist in 2019 not only makes him unpalatable to center-right voters, it saddles him with the historical weight of an entire philosophy many Israelis are weary of.
Gantz may yet make his political home with Israel’s center-left. But pinning any specific hopes on Hosen Leyisrael remains an act of projection. There are still too many unanswered questions about the party and its leader — including whether it would join a Likud-led coalition — to pass definitive judgment.