Whatever else he is, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is indisputably amongst the most loquacious politicians in his country’s history. Bombastic speeches at the UN, campaign speeches in historically significant locations around Israel, and televised “addresses to the nation” are the hallmark of his tenure in the Prime Minister’s office.
Since his second tenure has now lasted almost ten years, it is easy to forget that many or even most Israeli political figures have disliked talking as well as talkers. A stark reminder of this side of the Israeli character has emerged with the candidacy of Benny Gantz, 59, a former chief of staff and political neophyte, who having only entered politics a few months ago has catapulted himself and his new party, Hosen Israel (“Mighty Israel”), within striking distance of Netanyahu’s Likud in most major polls. Even if Gantz doesn’t manage to close the gap before the April 11 election, or if he does but fails to navigate the treacherous waters of coalition building in Israel’s proportionally divided Knesset, he has turned himself overnight into Netanyahu’s chief rival.
Who is Benny Gantz? Most Israelis, perhaps even many of his supporters, couldn’t recite more than a few lines of stock biography. A career soldier, he originally enlisted as a paratrooper and worked his way up through various branches of the IDF. Eventually, he served the mandated four-year term as Chief of Staff between 2011-2015 under none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz was notably in charge of the army during the 2014 conflict in Gaza, when Israel attacked Gaza to deter missile attacks and tunnel infiltrations by Hamas into Israel.
There has been considerable mystery about Gantz’s political opinions. Is he left-wing or right-wing? Would he consider a spot in a government led by Netanyahu or he is an implacable foe? For the first few weeks of the campaign, Gantz studiously refused to say more than a few words, except, in a nod to the Trump campaign, that he would always put “Israel before all else.” Finally, on Tuesday night, Gantz gave his first major speech, in which he claimed that staying quiet was not merely style but substance. “Security is created by deeds and not by words,” he told supporters in Tel Aviv, “in the harsh and violent Middle East surrounding us, there is no mercy for the weak. Only the strong survive!” Promising strength and threatening Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, Gantz went on to indict the current government for corruption and bemoaned the alleged descent of the country into partisan politics. In a manner reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle, he pledged to stand above parties and work as a “patriot” on behalf of Israel.
Noting his almost comically exaggerated bellicosity toward Israel’s enemies, Israeli commentators have argued that Gantz is a throwback right-winger from the days before Netanyahu. For while Bibi had been an elite soldier as well, his genuine political education came through diplomatic service and business, as well as his study of classic works of political economy. The “Old Likud,” the argument goes, was the home to the real firebrands.
Actually, Gantz seems to represent the return of an Israeli character type never totally absent but long repressed under the Netanyahu regime: the silent general. This figure, often bred on the kibbutz and politically more at home with the Labor Party, thinks talk is cheap and detests the deal-making and prideful clucking of civilian politicians. He values simplicity, even austerity, in personal style. He is the kind of person who naturally cringes when he hears details about the Netanyahu family’s luxurious life in the seaside town of Caesarea. (Gantz alluded to this in his big campaign speech). It was with such kibbutznik-warriors in mind that the late French historian François Furet memorably dubbed Israel “a new Sparta, agrarian and military.”
If there is any Israeli political figure Gantz recalls, it is not a figure from the Right but the late Yitzhak Rabin, himself a war hero and chief of staff who then went into politics. Though now remembered for his impassioned but rather convoluted pleas for peace before his assassination in 1995, Rabin actually detested political rhetoric and never bothered to articulate a policy agenda. Much like Gantz, Rabin did not hesitate to threaten enemies with brutality. Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, prefers to argue against Iran through reasoned speeches on television and addresses in international forums.
Silent generals have done much to protect Israel since 1948. Yet, given recent history, there are good reasons to be skeptical about this approach to politics. Rabin’s inability or unwillingness to articulate, in concrete terms, his approach to the peace process with the Palestinians led to much bewilderment, leaving Israelis unprepared for the diplomatic and military challenges that ensued. The late Ariel Sharon, another “strong silent” general/Prime Minister, refused to tell even his closest advisers his reasoning behind removing all Israeli settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Was it so that Israel would be under less pressure to leave the West Bank, or was it the first stage in a planned withdrawal from the West Bank? No one knows for sure what Sharon thought. He thus failed to mobilize the country toward any specific objective with respect to the Palestinians in Gaza. Other than releasing a television ad bragging about prior damage he inflicted on Hamas, Gantz has so far been extremely short on specifics about his views of the Palestinian question, Iran, and other challenges. To his credit, he has said concretely that he aims to improve the overburdened hospital system. But can such vagueness lead to victory? And will it lead to successful government?
Israel’s elections are still two months away. The public will inevitably learn at least a bit more about Gantz, however silent he remains. It is undeniable that Netanyahu now has the most formidable challenger on his hand in many years. And Israelis, by now used to if never quite enamored with the speechifying Netanyahu, will have to decide whether a healthy politics requires a good dose of rhetoric about the opportunities and challenges the country faces.