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Benny Gantz and the sound of silence

In ten weeks, Israeli voters will head to the polls, so why is the man hailed as the most serious challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu in years so silent?

Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s quiet brooding presence looms large over this bizarre election campaign. As political parties fight it out in their campaign films and politicians step up their criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu, team Gantz’s game plan seems to be underpinned by the famous song lyric: ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’

This is a smart strategy that plays to Gantz’s strengths but it carries a huge risk. If he is trying to sell himself to Israeli voters as the only adult in the room, then there is merit in being above the spiteful squabbles of the current crop of politicians. Gantz wants to look like a wise statesman, a man with the experience and leadership qualities to run the country. This plan suits Gantz’s style which is more deliberative and cautious, an acceptance that he will never excel in an arena that demands quick witted put downs of political opponents to shock and amuse in equal measure. For a politician trying to present himself as a new kind of national leader, this could work. But it presents a dilemma. If you avoid the relentless media bear pit and say nothing, how can you market yourself to the Israeli public and persuade them to vote for you?

On Tuesday evening Gantz will give his first speech of the campaign. The posters announcing the event paid playful homage to the criticism of his reticence and said simply: ‘Gantz speaks.’ His speech is not likely to unveil a detailed set of policy proposals but it will provide the first glimpse of what kind of Israeli leader he is purporting to be. His intervention two weeks ago, when he promised to amend the controversial nation state bill was an enlightening case study because the incident revealed less about him and more about the threat he poses to his opponents. After Gantz promised to change the law and paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of Druze soldiers, he was pilloried as a leftist in a hysterical overreaction by right wing politicians. Indeed, the reaction was so extreme that it kept the story at the top of the news agenda for longer than it would otherwise have been. If he can expect this reaction every time he speaks then it could solve his problem. Not only will his opponents amplify his impact but in behaving like caricatures of themselves they only serve to prove his point about being a different kind of politician.

Although Gantz’s team has shown impressive discipline, they will need to come up with something compelling to enable their party to rise above the pack. Gantz won’t emerge as the leader of the largest party simply by not being Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud base is too strong and, according to a recent poll, even after an indictment, could still win 25 seats. With Gantz’s resilience party still only projected to win 13 or 14 seats, there is a long way to go to build a base of support that can seriously challenge Likud. Is that possible in just ten weeks?

There are two different challenges Gantz will face. The first is capability. In simple terms, would he be a good Prime Minister? In head to head polls Gantz is just a few points away from Netanyahu. Much of this support comes from the respect he commands as a former Chief of Staff with a strong reputation for integrity and leadership. He has been tested under fire and would have no problems as Prime Minister making life or death decisions or judging when to use force and when not to. Netanyahu and Likud can attack this record and dig up dirt with the added twist that the dirt will boomerang back in Bibi’s face. As Prime Minister he appointed Gantz as Chief of Staff and approved all his actions. If Gantz was a military failure, it happened on Netanyahu’s watch.

The second challenge is ideology. Gantz will try and steer a centrist course and stay light on detail, but he will be asked for his plan for the West Bank, what he thinks about isolated settlements, how to deal with Hamas in Gaza and if he would serve in a Netanyahu Government? Every one of these answers could potentially alienate the very right-wing voters he needs to win over from Likud or alienate the centrists he needs for his base. At some point in this campaign he will have to make a choice and start talking detail.

To have any chance of success Gantz needs to set out a compelling vision for Israel’s future and provide some clear answers to its many deep -rooted problems. If he does that well, he could electrify this election campaign and even re-align Israeli politics. If he fails, he’ll end up as another footnote of Israeli political history, yet another former General who tried his hand at politics and failed.