Benny Gantz is taking Israel back to the future

Benny Gantz’s campaign to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu centers on a single word: mamlachtiyut. Coined by Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, it is the Hebrew term for civic virtue, for putting the good of the state above sectarian divisions and personal interests — above everything. It is the central pillar of Gantz’s Blue and White party, which otherwise offers only a vague platform. Gantz’s argument is that Netanyahu, facing indictments in three separate corruption cases, no longer possesses this virtue, and that Israel needs a leader who does.

Blue and White is betting that Israelis have grown tired of Netanyahu’s style of rule, but not the substance of his politics. The distinctions Gantz seeks to draw are primarily affective and aesthetic. Where Netanyahu is brash, Gantz is soft-spoken; where Netanyahu is frenetic, Gantz is collected. Netanyahu prefers the wide jackets and thick ties of 1990s autocrats, while Gantz wears the tailored suits and skinny ties of today’s technocrats. On the podium, Gantz exudes a martial dignity meant to contrast with Netanyahu’s mafioso-populism. That Netanyahu is not the only Likudnik facing criminal corruption charges helps Gantz’s argument that the ruling party lacks the virtues to lead. Likud Welfare Minister Haim Katz and MK David Bitan are also facing criminal investigations of their own.

There is an element of nostalgia to Gantz’s presentation. The tall, blue-eyed retired general has modeled himself as the successor to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and was crowned as such last November, when he delivered the main speech during the annual ceremony in Tel Aviv commemorating Rabin’s assassination. Unlike Netanyahu, who was raised among Jerusalem’s right-wing counter-intelligentsia, and whose Likud has long been the party of the Mizrahi working-class, Gantz was born to Holocaust survivor parents on a moshav, an agricultural cooperative, associated with the religious wing of the Labor Zionist movement. His resemblance to Israel’s bygone generation of farmer-warrior leaders accounts, in part, for his party’s success in peeling off voters from the old Labor Zionist parties, Labor and Meretz, which have had to merge to avoid all-but-certain failure to meet the electoral threshold.

The intentional amorphousness of Blue and White’s platform only makes Gantz more of a cipher. He can be more than just the second coming of Rabin for the aging Labor Zionists; he is the champion in the fight against the steady creep of religious indoctrination in public schools for secularists, and in the fight against corruption for the middle-class. For right-wing voters, he is a defense-minded general unafraid to boast of how many Palestinians he’s killed.

Blue and White is itself a chimera, only recently cohering into something resembling an actual political party, after a full year of non-stop campaigning and three election cycles. Though listed under Gantz’s name alone in this election, it is in reality closer to a jointly-led party, comprised of four distinct factions: Gantz’s Resilience for Israel Party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), former Likud Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon’s Telem (an acronym for “National Statesman-like Movement”), and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s informal group of supporters. The four leaders call themselves, collectively, “the cockpit.”

In the previous rounds of elections, Blue and White was a nominal opposition party unsure of, even conflicted about, where it stood — equivocating on basic matters of principle, like whether it would sit in a coalition with the Arab-led Joint List. But as time has worn on, and as it has become a genuine challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud, a clearer ideological bent has begun to emerge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony at the Knesset marking 24 years since the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Whether for reasons of strategy or principle, or some combination of both, Blue and White has tacked hard to the right in the current round of elections. When Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jordan Valley in November, Blue and White MKs Chili Tropper and Yoaz Hendel said the party would support it. Then, as Donald Trump and Netanyahu jointly unveiled Trump’s “peace plan” in Washington in January, Gantz not only secured a meeting with Trump but also pledged to implement the plan (though not before the elections, as Netanyahu promised to do).

Gantz has made other gestures to show his support for right-wing causes. Earlier in January, for instance, he visited the City of David, a Jewish archeological settlement in East Jerusalem, which he described as “the roots of our existence here, in the unified Jerusalem.” And whereas a year ago Gantz said the party would be willing to work in coalition with the Joint List, he and other members of the party have recently gone out of their way to deem a coalition with the Arab-led parties as beyond the pale. Gantz has committed instead to forming a national unity government with Likud, preferably without Netanyahu.

As Blue and White has more explicitly positioned itself on the right, one faction has emerged as the party’s most prominent, appearing alongside Gantz in public and as surrogates in the media: the ex-Likudnik hawks of Ya’alon’s Telem. These include Yoaz Hendel, Netanyahu’s former director of communications, and Zvi Hauser, Netanyahu’s former cabinet secretary and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank that played a major role in crafting the Jewish Nation-State Law. Ya’alon himself served as Netanyahu’s defense minister from 2013 until resigning in 2016. All are staunch opponents of a two-state solution; all have long records of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

In an interview earlier in February, Hendel told Haaretz that “Arab culture” is “a jungle” that “has not reached the stage of evolution at which there are human rights.” In a video released this week by the Blue and White party, in which the four members of the “cockpit” jokingly answer questions from voters, Lapid says of Ya’alon, “Bogie was no small murderer in the army,” after which he and Ashkenazi laugh.

Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gaby Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party, during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 9, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This is what the Israeli center looks like today: racist, militarist, ethno-nationalist, and committed to the perpetual subjugation of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. But it is also what the Israeli center has looked like for a long time.

‘No partner for peace’

The roots of what we know today as the Israeli center can be found at the end of the Oslo period. It was supposed to be the left that would resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, yet in 2000, after the failure of the Camp David talks, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned from Maryland to Israel to declare “there is no partner for peace.” The outbreak of the Second Intifada shortly thereafter seemed to prove his words right.

But while Barak’s speech marked the end of the Israeli left’s leadership of the peace process, negotiations with the Palestinians had not yet come to a complete halt. The center would pick the mantle of pushing for territorial compromise. In the years after Camp David, Israeli centrist politicians pledged, albeit in different ways, to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.

In most cases, these politicians came from the right: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni. It is conventional wisdom that the kind of Israeli most likely to successfully negotiate a peace treaty is a right-winger, or a former general — preferably both, if possible. After all, it was Menachem Begin, the right-wing Revisionist leader, who signed Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. Rabin, a former IDF chief of staff who led Israel to victory in the Six-Day War, not only signed Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan, but came closer than any other Israeli leader to signing one with the Palestinians.

Such thinking informed then-Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to split from Likud and form Kadima, a new centrist party, in the fall of 2005. A right-wing former general with a reputation for brutality, Sharon was facing significant opposition from Likud following Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. With Kadima, a party comprised of MKs who had previously been members of Labor and Shinui (a small centrist party) as well as Likud, Sharon pledged to continue working toward a two-state solution.

Tzipi Livni sits with the founder of the Kadima party, Ariel Sharon. January 13, 2001. (Flash90)

Sharon and other Kadima leaders, like former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, made clear they believed that Israel had a right to all of the historic land of Israel. But they also argued that if Israel were to maintain both its Jewish demographic majority and its democratic character, it would have to relinquish territory for the creation of a Palestinian state.

The rise of Kadima was accompanied by a shift in the discourse around Israeli territorial compromise. While Rabin had spoken openly of the need for peace, his assassination, and especially the suicide bombings of the early 2000s, seemed to remove “peace” from the national political vocabulary. Instead, Kadima and other centrist leaders began to speak of “separating” from the Palestinians to preserve Israel’s security and its Jewish majority. “Peace” was a naïve, impossible dream; “separation” was hard-headed, realistic, the kind of strategic move a general would make. This was also the rationale that led Sharon to initiate the construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank.

Kadima’s leaders had framed the 2005 unilateral disengagement as a necessary step in a larger process that would eventually end with two states. Instead, the disengagement marked the end of that process, not a new beginning. For an already weary Israeli public, the wrenching images of the Gaza disengagement served as a powerful deterrent for future population withdrawals. And Hamas’ 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip and the wars that followed only hardened the view that territorial compromise could not secure a lasting or desirable peace.

A commitment to resolving the conflict would nonetheless remain central to Kadima’s platform for the better part of the decade. After Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006, Ehud Olmert took over the party and returned to the negotiating table with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. But Olmert’s efforts were hampered by his own corruption scandal (he would later serve 16 of 27 months of a prison sentence for fraud and bribery), and the two reached no deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President George W. Bush, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands at the Annapolis Conference in the Naval Academy's Memorial Hall in Annapolis, Maryland, November 27, 2007.(Gin Kai/U.S. Navy)

Kadima’s fortunes peaked shortly after, in the fall of 2008, when the party, led by Livni, won the most seats in the elections, yet failed to form a government. After 2009, the party withered. Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF Chief of Staff and Likud defense minister, defeated Livni in elections for party leader in 2012 and then proceeded to lead the party into electoral oblivion. Livni split from Kadima to lead her own party, Hatnua (“The Movement”), which never gained more than eight Knesset seats on its own. A centrism that focused on ending the conflict with the Palestinians — even when framed in terms of separation, not peace — no longer seemed to find purchase with a plurality, let alone a majority, of Israelis.

In January 2013, buoyed by the previous year and a half of protests over the high cost of living, Lapid’s Yesh Atid emerged as the second-largest party in the Knesset and the leading centrist party. Yesh Atid was unlike Kadima in many ways, but one significant difference was that Lapid’s party had almost nothing to say about the Palestinians, the occupation, or the peace process. Instead, the party focused on social issues, championing an Israeli liberalism of support for LGBTQ rights, secularism, and the needs of students and young middle-class families. Anti-corruption rhetoric also played a role in Yesh Atid’s rise, which carved out a contrast with the politicians who’d previously represented the center, like Olmert and Sharon.

Lapid’s own background reflected an important change, too. Instead of choosing a decorated general or war hero, the Israeli middle class chose as their leader a TV personality. Just as importantly, Lapid did not join the opposition to Netanyahu; he joined the right-wing coalition. So did Livni, who had promised only to remain in the coalition as long as it was engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians. She broke that promise, remaining part of the governing coalition even after the talks led by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in 2014, and through Israel’s war on Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Yair Lapid and some 25,000 people hold a mass rally in Tel Aviv urging the government to enact universal draft legislation, July 7, 2012. (Tali Mayer/Flash90)

Since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, the Israeli center has ceased to represent an ideological alternative to the right when it comes to the Palestinians and the occupation. Indeed, the paradox of the recent period of instability in Israeli politics is that it is, in part, the product of relative ideological consensus on this issue.

Livni’s political career can be seen as an index of the political shift to the right — from leader of the opposition to Netanyahu, to Netanyahu’s justice minister, to lacking sufficient public support to lead a party of her own. Another measure of this is the extent to which the Likud has consolidated its power over other parties. Every single Israeli Zionist list for the 2020 elections is led, entirely or in part, by former Likud members.

Unlike in the 1990s and early 2000s, the primary division within Israeli Jewish politics today is not over how to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Instead, it is over competing visions of what Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called the “national popular” — over the question of who and what the Israeli state is for. Some contemporary Israeli analysts describe this division as one of “Israelis versus Jews” — between a secular Israeli nationalism, and a religious nationalism that upholds the Orthodox domination of religious institutions and ascribes theological significance to the Land of Israel.

This division is concretized in the “electoral blocs” that have become a recent mainstay of Israeli politics. Against the bloc of centrists, statists, secularists, and what remains of Labor Zionism — “the center-left,” by Israeli media’s standards — there is the right-wing bloc, comprised of the increasingly religious nationalist Likud, the far-right settler parties, and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Where both blocs agree is that the demos in Israeli democracy includes only Jews.

The second coming of Rabin

By seeking help from the Trump administration to salvage his political future, Netanyahu has brought the Palestinian question back to the heart of Israeli politics. From U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights to the Trump “peace plan,” which greenlights Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley as well as of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu and the Trump administration together are aiming to end the possibility of a Palestinian state once and for all. The Israeli center, now represented by Gantz’s Blue and White party, is poised to support them.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party in the Oval Office of the White House, on January 27, 2020. (Shealah Craighead/White House)

This is less a deviation from the center-left’s historic orientation toward the Palestinians than a return to an earlier position. It was, ironically, the Trump administration itself that made this point in its 181-page “vision” document: that while Rabin did in fact speak of peace, what he was offering the Palestinians was substantially less than a state.

In his final speech in the Knesset in October 1995, one month before his assassination, Rabin declared that Israel’s eastern border would remain the Jordan Valley “in the widest sense of this term,” and that Israel would eventually annex not only the settlement blocs near Jerusalem but additional settlements as well. “We will not return to the June 4, 1967 borders,” he said. Rabin did not refer in that speech to a Palestinian state but to a Palestinian “entity” that would be less than a state.

Two years earlier, in 1993, Edward Said reflected in the London Review of Books on the signing of the first Oslo Accords. Israel had conceded nothing except for recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people, wrote Said, while the Palestinians had ended the intifada without ending the occupation. To make matters worse, by accepting that questions of land and sovereignty be postponed until a final status agreement, “the Palestinians have in effect discounted their unilateral and internationally acknowledged claim to the West Bank and Gaza,” Said lamented. He predicted that “rather than becoming stronger during the interim period, the Palestinians may grow weaker, come more under the Israeli thumb, and less able to dispute the Israeli claim.” He was right.

Said likened the Oslo Agreement signed by Yasser Arafat and Rabin to a “modified Allon Plan” — the proposal drawn up in July 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War, by then-Defense Minister Yigal Allon. The “Allon Plan” entailed maintaining Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley, making the Jordan River Israel’s eastern border, while withdrawing from areas with high Palestinian populations. It has not only served as the basis for much of Israeli policy in the West Bank over the past several decades: its core logic is also at the core of the Trump plan. If Gantz, as he and his party have pledged, implements this plan, then perhaps his posturing of the second coming of Rabin has some substance to it after all.



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