What Does Benny Gantz Want for Israel?


When Benny Gantz quit Israel’s emergency wartime cabinet, on June 9th, he did so with some political mudslinging. He and two of his colleagues in the centrist National Unity Party had joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s government immediately after the Hamas-led attacks of October 7th, “even though we knew it was a bad government,” Gantz said. “We did it because we knew it was a bad government.”

“The people of Israel, the fighters, the commanders, the families of the murdered, the casualties, and the hostages needed unity and support like they needed air to breathe,” Gantz went on. But unity was short-lived. In Netanyahu’s government, he said, “fateful strategic decisions are met with hesitation and procrastination due to political considerations.” Riffing on the Prime Minister’s motto of “total victory” against Hamas, Gantz claimed that “Netanyahu prevents us from progressing to real victory.” As a result, he said, “we are leaving the emergency government today with a heavy but whole heart.”

Gantz’s decision surprised no one in Israel. Last month, he gave an ultimatum that, if Netanyahu failed to spell out a concrete plan for the future of Gaza, he would leave the government. He had become exasperated with Netanyahu for agreeing on one thing in the wartime cabinet and then doing the opposite because of pressure from his far-right coalition partners, Gantz told Israel’s Channel 12 last week. The cabinet had formulated a phased proposal that would see the release of thirty-three hostages in exchange for a six-week ceasefire. “And then Smotrich goes to him and does what he does,” Gantz said, referring to Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s extremist finance minister, who had been threatening to topple the government if Netanyahu “waved a white flag.” Netanyahu changed his mind about the deal, Gantz went on. “I had to call him and demand another discussion.” (In a statement, Netanyahu’s Likud Party said, “Gantz is lying.”) The split between the wartime cabinet and the rest of the government had become so pronounced that, as Amit Segal, a political correspondent for Channel 12, put it, “those who know don’t decide and those who decide don’t know.” By Monday, Netanyahu had officially dissolved the war cabinet, amid demands from a far-right minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to serve in Gantz’s stead.

Gantz, who is sixty-five, spent four decades in the Israeli military, rising to the top post of chief of staff in 2011. In 2015, he retired from the Army. Three years later, he entered politics, forming a new centrist alliance known as Blue and White that was supposed to provide a counterweight to the right-wing Likud. But, in 2020, after having been on the receiving end of a vicious smear campaign that was amplified by prominent Likud officials, Gantz shocked many by joining forces with Netanyahu, becoming his defense minister. Then, too, Netanyahu made an appeal for unity; then, too, he failed to deliver. Gantz was supposed to rotate in as Prime Minister after a year and a half, but Netanyahu reneged on the agreement, forcing an early election, instead. Gantz’s party came a distant fourth. “I intentionally left them in the dark on crucial matters to prevent them from scuttling my initiatives,” Netanyahu later boasted about Gantz and his party members.

Gantz’s popularity peaked in the weeks after October 7th, and has been steadily declining since. From the outset, some detractors of Netanyahu were aghast at Gantz’s decision to join a government that presided over the worst security failing in Israel’s history. Gantz was, in the words of Uri Misgav, a journalist for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, “providing a political lifeline to Netanyahu time and again.” Netanyahu’s critics then blamed Gantz for leaving the government much too late. “He should have resigned five months ago,” when it first became apparent that Netanyahu was prolonging the war and scuttling a deal with Hamas, Amnon Abramovich, a veteran political analyst, told me this past week. The right is now accusing Gantz of abandoning the government at a time of crisis. “Benny Gantz is a loser who wants the State of Israel to give in to Hamas,” Shimon Riklin, a commentator on Channel 14, a pro-Netanyahu network, wrote on X last week.

Yet poll after poll shows that Gantz is uniquely situated to lead Israel in the post-October 7th climate. Most Israelis are unhappy with Netanyahu: sixty-eight per cent say that they don’t trust his handling of the war. A majority wants the government to adopt a hostage-release and ceasefire deal, something that Netanyahu has so far been unwilling to do. (He’s not the only one: Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, has thwarted such a deal repeatedly.) If elections were held today, Netanyahu’s coalition would lose more than ten seats, according to recent polling, and the government would lose its majority in parliament.

Gantz appears to have the ability to read public sentiment and act accordingly without coming across as an opportunist. Eighty per cent of Israelis wanted the opposition parties to join an emergency government in the wake of October 7th, which Gantz did. Yair Lapid, a more outspoken Netanyahu rival, did not, refusing to enter the government so long as two far-right ministers served in it. He now consistently trails Gantz in the polls. For voters who are disappointed with Netanyahu but who balk at the idea of a “leftist” candidate (none of the leading challengers actually come from the political left), Gantz has emerged as Israel’s good-enough option: he excites few but, more importantly, alienates fewer. He is the first politician in years who seems poised to move a significant share of the electorate from Netanyahu’s right-wing camp to the anti-Netanyahu camp—no small feat, given Israel’s political polarization. If elections were held today, Gantz would likely be Israel’s next Prime Minister.

Abramovich compared Gantz to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both men represented “an alternative, not an opposition,” Abramovich said. “That is Gantz’s strength. He is perceived as being clean of political interests.” That ability to remain above the political fray came from his parents, Gantz once told an interviewer. His mother was a Hungarian Jew who survived Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp. When the camp was liberated, she weighed sixty-one pounds. His father, who came from Romania, worked as a carpenter in the Jewish ghetto, building coffins for the war’s dead. Gantz’s parents met in 1948 on a boat ferrying Holocaust survivors to a place that, two months later, would be recognized as the State of Israel. From them, Gantz has said, he learned that “strength and morality came into the world together. Without strength, what will we be? Without morality, who will we be?”

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