The Tragedy of Benny Gantz


The Tragedy of Benny Gantz

One of the pitfalls of democracy is that government of the people, by the people, for the people so rarely rewards politicians who make their decisions entirely on the basis of what is best for the people. Benny Gantz, who is currently serving as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, and who so recently led the most credible challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu’s interminable premiership in a decade, is learning the hard way.

In March, Gantz stunned the world and his political allies when he decided to share power with Netanyahu in an emergency government. Gantz agreed that the two should share the office of Prime Minister but generously decided to let Netanyahu go first – with Gantz scheduled to replace him in 18 months. This is the same Gantz who swore never to sit in a government with Netanyahu and who lambasted Netanyahu for practicing his English at fancy cocktail parties and having his make-up meticulously done for TV interviews while Gantz was risking his life defending the state of Israel.

To the extent there was any substance to Gantz’s campaigning in three consecutively inconclusive Israeli elections, it was that his name is not “Benjamin Netanyahu.”

That simple fact is what made Gantz appealing to Netanyahu’s critics. Even though Gantz’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not much different than Netanyahu’s (Gantz, for instance, is also gung-ho on annexing the Jordan Valley), Gantz’s secured the support of the Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties. How else to explain Avgidor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (the same Liberman who has in the past campaigned on requiring loyalty oaths from Israeli Arab citizens) and the Joint List working together to get Gantz into power?

If Gantz had succeeded in forming a minority government, it would have been a testament to his political malleability, not to mention an indicator of how deeply Netanyahu’s opponents have come to detest him. Instead, Gantz’s decision to join Netanyahu’s government has become an indictment of his political malleability. His once stalwart supporter, Yair Lapid, now calls him a hypocrite, a thief, and back-stabber – and the Israeli electorate seems to concur.

A Channel 12 survey three weeks ago showed just how far Gantz’s star has fallen. Were elections held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would garner 40 seats – the most for any single party since the halcyon days of Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party victory in 1992 – and could easily form a majority coalition with the help of religious parties like Shas, UTJ, and Yamina. Labor would not even cross the threshold for a seat and the Joint List would become the second largest bloc in the Knesset with 15 seats. And Gantz? Gantz’s Blue and White party, which at full strength after the most recent election earlier this year possessed 33 seats, would decline to 12 seats: a precipitous fall from grace.

As if on cue, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth has the scoop. Likud party officials will offer Gantz the mostly ceremonial office of the presidency when it becomes vacant in 2021 – because it would be “unreasonable” for Netanyahu to cede power to a man with such little political standing among Israeli voters. It hardly seems likely Gantz would take this offer, and besides, according to the terms of his agreement with Netanyahu, Gantz would serve as interim Prime Minister if Netanyahu calls early elections. So, Likud and Netanyahu are now searching for a way to force Gantz to harakiri his political career of his own volition, or else discover some other devious plan to absolve themselves of their previous commitments to him.

Why did Gantz do it? Gantz may well expect to become Prime Minister if Netanyahu is convicted of corruption (which Netanyahu is currently on trial for), in which case his move could be considered equal parts opportunistic and patient. Gantz may also have simply decided that the arithmetic did not work. Even with the Joint List’s recommendation, governing in a minority government would have been difficult if not impossible, and after three elections and almost a year and a half without a government, Gantz may have calculated that his time in power would have been short-lived and would lead to a strong resurgence in support for his erstwhile rival. Better to let Netanyahu’s future play out and then emerge as a ready-made savior in a year and a half than force the issue now.

The better explanation, however, may be to take Gantz at his word. Gantz justified his move by saying that he had “put the common good before [his] personal good.” Gantz is a soldier and has been one all his life. What Lapid and other former allies see as betrayal might be best understood as an expression of the duty to which Gantz devoted his life: the protection of the state of Israel no matter the cost. As a soldier, Gantz risked far more than his political popularity numerous times, and even Gantz’s jilted opponents cannot assail the extent of this man’s dedication to his nation without looking foolish.

Likely the explanation lies in some mixture of all of the above. Humans are rarely simple enough that their intentions can be neatly summed up in a sentence or two. But attempts at psychoanalysis aside, there are two deeper points to be made.

Israel’s demographics are changing – slowly and almost imperceptibly – but they are changing. And those changes are lethal to what used to be called the “left” in Israel and even to a centrist candidate like Gantz. Gantz flirted with the Arab parties before abandoning them under the chuppah, but in the future, the Arab parties will become harder to ignore. As their share of Israel’s population grows alongside that of Israel’s more religious and nationalist-minded populations, it will take a political leader capable of uniting both secular Jewish and Arab Israeli Arab forces into a coherent political bloc to challenge Likud’s dominance. (It is even money whether such a leader emerges before the Messiah.) Israel’s recent electoral deadlock is a symptom of this demographic tipping point – in another five to ten years, the Likud-led right will be able to rule comfortably on its own (and if the Channel 12 poll is to be believed, perhaps already can).

As for Gantz, whatever the precise mix of his personal intentions, at least part of his decision-making process had to have been that joining Netanyahu at this moment was what was best for Israel, which was staring down the barrel of a global pandemic amidst a corruption trial for its Prime Minister and the potential unilateral annexation of large swaths of the West Bank. The first two of those risks are self-explanatory, but annexation risks throwing Israel into its worst spell of civil violence since the Second Intifadeh and could irreparably damage Israel’s relations with countries like Jordan. It was more important to Gantz to be present in the decision-making room than to continue tilting at Netanyahu-shaped windmills on the campaign trail.

Netanyahu’s longevity as a leader has to do with the fact that he combines a strong dedication to his country with an equally strong dedication to himself. In democracies, leaders like Netanyahu are the sorts that often do best: ruthlessly ambitious and motivated as much by self-interest as by the desire to do genuine good. When national and personal interests are in harmony, leaders like Netanyahu can preside over eras of immense prosperity and rapid progress, especially if they enjoy wide political support. When those interests diverge, their decline can be equally swift.

Gantz put his country first against a man in Netanyahu who, though deeply patriotic, always puts himself first. Harsh a verdict as that may sound, Netanyahu’s creative selfishness is what has made him such an effective leader for so long. Asking or expecting him to behave any differently would be like asking Michael Jordan at the peak of his athletic powers to be a little less competitive so as not to be too much of a jerk to his teammates – in other words, just as unreasonable as asking Benny Gantz to stand on the sidelines during a crisis of this magnitude. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.