After weeks of almost radio silence, which had engendered criticism from political opponents as well as potential supporters, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz finally made his voice heard on Monday. Confounding expectations, he entered the race from stage left, pledging to a group of Druze demonstrators in front of his home to amend the Nation-State Law, which declared that only Jews had the right to self-determination in Israel and made no reference to the equality of all citizens (how, exactly, he would amend the law was unclear).

The Nation-State Law, which has quasi-constitutional status as one of Israel’s Basic Laws, was met with outrage by Israeli Druze. While most of the international criticism of the law focused on the obvious affront to Israel’s Arab minority, including a clause that seemingly downgraded the Arab language, the domestic opposition to the law found its most potent expression in the protest of the Israeli Druze.

Of the various minority groups in Israel, the Druze are the ones most lauded by society for their loyalty and service to the state, especially in the security services. While not a national political force themselves, the Israeli Druze remain a popular enough cause in the country that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially concerned by their opposition to the Nation-State Law. Naftali Bennett has referred to the Druze as “blood brothers” and made a similar promise to assuage their concerns in the summer. Gantz’s instinct to side with the Druze was thus not a political miscalculation, whereas coming out against the law in its entirety might have been.

Nevertheless, this is an election season and Gantz’s decision to speak out was immediately met with harsh criticism from both Likud and Hayemin Hehadash, who accused the commander of Israel’s armed forces during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza of being a leftist. While anyone who deigned to challenge either of those parties would have been denounced as a leftist, Gantz is more than partly at fault for this criticism: neither he or his party, Hosen Leyisrael, have taken a single substantive position beyond amending the Nation-State Law and suggesting that Benny Gantz would be a better prime minister than Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz’s reticence should be especially concerning for the staunch two-staters in the “Anyone But Bibi” crowd, as he is given absolutely no indication that he disagrees with Netanyahu’s official position on two states, laid out in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. While Gantz’s background and intention to challenge a right-wing government suggests he favors a position to the left of Likud and to the right of Meretz, it’s impossible to say where he stands using only his public statements.

Why has Gantz maintained his silence all these weeks? I suppose it’s for the same reason he eschewed an alliance with Tzipi Livni: to avoid being successfully painted as a leftist, which has come to represent a one-way ticket to the political margins in Israel in the years since the end of the Second Intifada. As Evan Gottesman writes in these pages, “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.” As we saw this week in response to his restrained and devoid-of-content statement on Nation-State Law, virtually anything out of his mouth would’ve been interpreted as “leftist” if it contradicted the position of the coalition government.

Gantz is wise to keep his cards close to his chest at this stage of the election. While the risk of him being convincingly caricatured as a leader of the left is probably overstated, he has nothing to gain by staking out early positions on controversial issues, and two good reasons to keep mum on them.

First, ideological ambiguity allows his party to explore several different political partnerships without alienating anyone. The deadline for submitting final lists is over a month away and I wouldn’t expect any substantive platform from Hosen Leyisrael until its full image as a party, including alliances, comes into view.

Second, we now basically know the election campaign will be a two-chapter affair: before Netanyahu is indicted and after. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit reportedly believes it’s his “duty” to announce his decision on whether the prime minister should be indicted in some or all of the cases against him, with February being the target month for such an announcement.

Israeli elections are often defined by security issues. Netanyahu’s strength relies on an aura of steady endurance, which will be shaken by likely indictments for bribery and breach of trust. After the indictments are announced and hearings are set, Netanyahu’s ability to serve as prime minister and provide that security will become the central issue of the election. If Gantz manages to maintain his enigmatic status over the next five or six weeks, he will enter the arena against a weakened Netanyahu forced to defend himself against sordid and credible allegations of graft.

Gantz, by all indications, is a wily and strategic thinker. He surely comprehends that running to Netanyahu’s right is a sucker’s game, especially with Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked running on their own list. He will hue closer to the center and present a clear choice between competence and corruption. Why put this at risk by making controversial political statements before the campaign truly begins?

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