Israel’s elections: It’s all about the Benjamins, baby

Will General Benjamin Gantz be any different than the other generals who entered Israeli politics as would-be saviours?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vs Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face off with retired Israeli general Benny Gantz at the upcoming general elections in Israel [AFP]

It’s deja vu all over again in Israel’s electoral politics, albeit with a few twists.

Three-star general Benjamin “Benny” Gantz is promising to unseat the mercurial Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu in the upcoming vote and change the political calculus of both Israelis and Palestinians. But how will this clash of the Benjamins differ from the political rivalries in any of the previous elections, where generals won the vote but lost the peace?

In the 1992 battle of the Yitzhaks, General Yitzhak Rabin won against Netanyahu’s former boss, the incumbent Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir, only to be assassinated three years later by a right-wing Jewish zealot, which allowed Netanyahu to secure his first electoral victory in 1996.

Three years later, another general named Ehud Barak revived hopes for Middle East peace by beating Netanyahu in the polls, but the Labor leader failed to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians the following year at the Camp David summit. That paved the way for six consecutive right-wing governments, starting with, yes, you guessed right it, another general, Ariel Sharon.

Opposition hopefuls argue, as they always do, that this time it is different. Defeating the indomitable but weakened leader of Likud will lead to the disintegration of the right, they say.

Third time lucky

Some see in the imposing figure of Gantz a modern-day Israeli John Wayne, especially in his incarnation as Colonel Mike Kirby in the 1969 Hollywood epic (disaster), The Green Beret. Unlike the short, arrogant and loud Barak, Benny speaks softly and carries a big stick. He has embraced the wisdom of “the Duke”: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much” and above all “never apologize; it a sign of weakness”. Gantz not only does not apologise for his bloody past, but he actually boasts about it. His campaign videos are a reel of the mayhem and destruction he brought onto the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Gantz’s Blue and White political alliance, which includes two other military chiefs, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon, has been leading in the polls. It is more representative of Israelis than the eclipsing Labor Party, which lost its allure and influence a long time ago.

Blue and White supporters say this election presents an historic opportunity to deal Netanyahu a final blow that would knock him out of Israel’s political scene. Hounded by charges of corruption and imminent indictment, Netanyahu is the weakest he’s been in a long time. His lies and deception have finally caught up with him.

An electoral defeat for the Likud leader, who dominates the government as prime, defence and foreign minister, is bound to fracture his party, bring down the delicate coalition of right-wing fanatics he had forged, and shatter the Israeli right as a whole. In other words, unseating Netanyahu, “the king of Israel”, will undo his entire regime and pave the way for new politics in Israel.

Or at least so the opposition hopes.

Not so fast, say the sceptics.

Wishful naivety

Netanyahu & co insist that they still command huge popular support, despite the indictments. He emphasises his unparalleled experience among peers, especially in comparison to his rival Benny, whose political career has only just begun. Unlike many Israeli generals-turned-politicians before him, Gantz has never served in government or parliament.

Moreover, Netanyahu continues to exercise considerable influence over the right. A proven skilful political operator, he engineered a number of coalitions of religious, secular, as well as centrist and extremist parties. Indeed, many of the leaders of the smaller parties served under him in the past, including Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) and Naftali Bennett of the New Right party, who began their political careers as his office director and chief of staff, respectively. 

Netanyahu also has a huge influence in Washington, and especially within the current administration. President Donald Trump, who enjoys unparalleled support among Israeli Jews, has gone out of his way to praise him as a “tough”, “smart” and “strong” leader.  It seems like not a week goes by without the Trump administration giving him a helping hand in his electoral campaign.

From moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, to legitimising illegal settlements, to omitting the “occupied” label from references to the occupied Palestinian territories and calling for the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Trump has trampled over international law and past agreements to bestow American legitimacy on Bibi’s most wacky fantasies.

Netanyahu also prides himself on being a skilled statesman, forging diplomatic, security and strategic relations with many world and regional powers, especially Gulf states, without making any concessions to the Palestinians.

The incumbent’s strategy is winning the day; he has demonstrated that not only are better Israeli relations with the US and Arab world not contingent on making compromises in Palestine but in fact, the greater the Israeli repression of the Palestinians, the greater American complicity and the Arab appeasement of Israel have become.

The rule of the generals

It’s no coincidence that, from the outset, Netanyahu’s strategy was posited on labelling Benny Gantz as a “leftie”, while emphasising his own right-wing credentials. After all, the Israeli left is for all practical purposes, passe; it’s out of fashion after decades of political turn towards the right.

The crisis in the so-called left runs deep. The Labor Party, which has changed nine leaders in the span of 20 years, and its junior partner Meretz are expected to win no more 12-15 percent of the vote in April. And two leaders of the so-called left, Avi Gabbay of Labor and Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah (The Movement), have basically risen from the shadows of the right. Their joint Zionist Union alliance fell apart only a few weeks ago.

Not surprisingly, Gantz rejects the “leftie” label and its implications of softness and compromise, even though many on the left embrace him as their choice. In fact, along with his ally, Yair Lapid of centrist Yesh Atid party, he rejects the whole left-right binary with the slogan “No Left, No Right, Israel Above All”.  

But then, then does he stand for?

Gantz’s campaign shtick revolves around his straight-talking toughness in comparison with the corrupt, lying, flip-flopping, champagne-drinking, cigar-smoking, American-accented Netanyahu. He markets himself as the credible and safe alternative to lead a country. If Israel is bound to always “live by the sword” as he contends, a general is more suitable for the job.

Many Israelis agree.

They have long viewed generals, rightly or wrongly, as selfless patriots, the saviours of Israel from foreign threats and domestic excesses. 

Having three former military chiefs unite against Netanyahu in this election is a product of the military elite’s growing involvement in politics since the 1973 war. The events of that year paved the way for Yitzhak Rabin to become the first former chief of general staff to take over the Israeli premiership.

In the following three decades, Labor appointed former top military officers to leadership positions four times to enhance its security credentials against the rising right.

Other members of the top brass entered Israeli politics by joining Likud governments, starting with Ariel Sharon, Yigael Yadin, Moshe Dayan and Rafael Eitan. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, this trend continued, with generals like Rehavam Ze’evi, Avigdor Kahalani and Yitzhak Mordechai establishing their own parties and/or joining right-wing coalitions.

On the left, former generals Rabin, Barak and Amram Mitzna stepped in to take the reins after Labor’s repeated losses to Likud. The latter’s huge electoral loss to fellow general Ariel Sharon in 2003 dampened Labor’s chances of regaining power ever again.  

Left behind

It’s important to recall that when Labor ruled, it put Likud to shame. The left that Netanyahu ridicules as soft and elitist was the one that established, developed and expanded the “Jewish state” on the ruins of another people – the Palestinians. It won major wars against multiple Arab states, occupied lands three times Israel’s size, and acted as mercilessly and at times more aggressively than Likud towards Palestinians both within the state and in the occupied territories.

Indeed, Labor’s militarist, expansionist and colonial policies over three decades and its outright rejection of Arab peace overtures in the early 1970s paved the way for the rise of the movement for Greater Israel and the eventual Likud takeover in 1977.

After Labor opposed the Likud-led invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and supported negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) a decade later, the hope was it had set itself apart from Likud. But Netanyahu’s decision to negotiate with the PLO and sign the Wye River and Hebron agreements with Yasser Arafat in the late 1990s blurred the lines between Likud and Labor. Likewise, Labor’s embrace of economic liberalisation and privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s has all but extinguished its socialist credentials.

That’s why the right-left divide that Netanyahu is trying to revive in order to win the April 9 election, is no longer a relevant feature of Israeli politics. The difference between left and right is meagre and no longer consequential. It’s high time to call Labor and the Blue and White alliance by their real name, “Likud light”.

Both Bibi and Benny are very well aware of this. They both know that right-wing coalitions have, for all practical purposes, dominated the politics of the country over the past four decades, with the exception of the two short-lived Labor governments. So pervasive is the right, that fascist elements of the “new right” have become fashionable. Netanyahu has already welcomed the inclusion of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) in a future coalition government. That’s the party that advocates stripping Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship and expelling them to the occupied territories.

The two Benjamins also understand that the dominance of the right in Israeli politics is showing no sign of subsiding. With the exception of Meretz, which may not make it to the next Knesset, all the Jewish parties running in the election represent different shades of right, from the moderate to the extreme, from the nationalist-religious to the nationalist secular, and from the Ashkenazi to the Sephardic right.

Where is Israel’s Charles De Gaulle?

For Palestinians, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Both Likud and Blue and White reject the basic principles of equitable peace: an end to illegal settlement building, full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee question.

The Benjamins reject any form of coalition with Arab parties, limiting government formation to the Jewish parties only. They remember how Rabin was assassinated in part for relying on Arab parliamentarians to pass the Oslo Accords through the Knesset, rendering him and the entire Peace Process illegitimate in the eyes of the right. While some “Israeli Arab” leaders view Netanyahu as the worst of all possible options, they hardly stand a chance of joining a government led by any other party in the “Jewish state”.

With the possible exception of Rabin, who was assassinated before he could reveal his vision for permanent peace, Israeli leaders, politicians and generals have lacked the courage to try and yank Israel out of its conundrums by taking the necessary risks to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

In other words, Israel is yet to produce a leader like Charles De Gaulle, who pulled France out of Algeria, or like Frederik De Klerk, who ended apartheid in South Africa.

In his book with the telling title, Fortress Israel, The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run The Country – And Why They Can’t Make Peace, former chief correspondent for the New York Times, Patrick Tyler concludes:

“The Zionist movement had survived the onslaught of world wars, the Holocaust, and clashes of ideology, but in the modern era of statehood, Israel seemed incapable of fielding a generation of leaders who could adapt to the times, who were dedicated to ending the occupation and, thus, their isolation, or to changing the paradigm of military preeminence.”

Incapable, yes, but Israel is also uninterested in an equitable solution. Washington’s support, Arab appeasement and Palestinian weakness give Israeli leaders no reasons to take risks for peace.

Peace has, in fact, become a dirty word in Netanyahu’s Israel.