Analysis: Is Israel ready for a change at the top?

Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is the focus of the anti-Netanyahu camp’s hopes. But if he succeeds, the difference will be more about personality than policy.

By Jonathan S. Tobin, Editor-in-Chief, JNS

The wait is over for Israelis to finally hear from the man pundits think is most likely to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Benny Gantz, a general and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, launched his election campaign with a speech this week that most observers judged a success. The expectation has been that once Gantz broke his relative silence and started taking positions, the glow around his political prospects would begin to fade. But in giving an address that highlighted his security credentials and articulated consensus positions on the territories and peace, Gantz preserved his pareve image.

In fact, Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael, or Israel Resilience Party, gained in the polls in the aftermath of the speech.

Gantz has a long way to go and many other pitfalls to be avoided if he is going to have a chance to defeat Netanyahu in the April 9 elections. But there are some conclusions that can be drawn from his campaign launch that both friends of Israel and the Jewish state’s American critics need to understand.

The first and best explanation for the Gantz surge is obvious: Netanyahu may have outstayed his welcome.

The prime minister places first in every poll in which Israelis are asked who is best qualified to lead their country for understandable reasons. After being elected prime minister four times and having led the country for the last decade (he will pass David Ben-Gurion as the country’s longest serving premier if he’s re-elected), he stands head and shoulders above every possible rival in terms of security credentials and gravitas. And while critics are loath to acknowledge it, his last 10 years in office have been a smashing success.

Why a change in leadership?

Under his leadership, Israel has grown stronger and less isolated as his diplomatic initiatives have won the Jewish state allies (both open and under the table) among former foes in the Arab world and in Africa and Asia. The alliance with the United States has never been closer (though that has more to do with the replacement of a generally hostile Barack Obama with a very friendly Donald Trump in the White House). Israel’s economy is booming. Indeed, it can be argued that Netanyahu may be the only politician in Israel (a nation where war and peace always dominate the discussion) who actually understands economics.

Under those circumstances, why would Israelis be looking for a new prime minister?

Of course, many are not. Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud getting far more support than any other party. The polls also show that Likud and the parties that make up the current coalition will win more than enough seats to form the next government.

But there’s more to what’s going on in this election than those numbers.

If Gantz’s stock is rising, it’s because Israeli voters are no different than Americans or those in any other democracy. They don’t think elected leaders should stay in office forever. As a fresh face with a sterling military résumé, he is the perfect antidote to Bibi fatigue. Even those who think the various efforts to prosecute the prime minister on corruption charges are politically motivated have to be concerned about the possibility of a prime minister with a possible indictment hanging over him.

Gantz is off to a good start and, at least for the moment, appears to have supplanted Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party as the leading alternative to Netanyahu. Those who can’t stand the prime minister are still hoping that the two centrist parties will merge. That might well produce a result in which their combined ticket would overhaul Likud as the party with the most seats and a shot at forming the next government. But even in that scenario, the combined strength of the Likud, coupled with its right-wing and religious allies/frenemies, would outstrip that of the centrist parties and the Jewish parties on the left. It’s also hard to imagine either man being willing to serve under the other.

A blank political slate

Gantz is still something of a blank political slate, and the expectations of his potential supporters are more a matter of their hopes than any proof that he will govern in a specific manner. Still, he is not someone whose views about the conflict with the Palestinians are at all congenial to Netanyahu’s American Jewish critics of the prime minister.

Gantz’s stands on the peace process are centrist in Israeli terms, but out of step with those of most U.S. Jewish liberals in that he opposes the removal of settlements and sees the Jordan River remaining as Israel’s security border.

In one of his first political decisions, he rejected an alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua Party because he perceived her as being too identified with the left. The next thing he did was to accept an alliance with former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and his Telem Party. Ya’alon has been a bitter critic of Netanyahu ever since he was forced out of his ministerial post, yet his security positions are at least as hawkish as those of the prime minister. He famously and undiplomatically denounced former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for having what he called his “incomprehensible obsession” with futile peace talks with the Palestinians and for harboring “messianic” pretensions about his ability to craft an agreement. Any government with Ya’alon in it won’t be to J Street’s liking.

The same can be said of Gantz. While Netanyahu’s legion of U.S. critics will cheer if Gantz unseats him in April, the general’s few public utterances seem crafted to reassure Israeli voters that he is part of the same consensus about peace that elected Netanyahu in the last three elections. If he beats the prime minister it won’t be because he’s offering a different policy, but because he presents a cleaner reputation backing more or less the same stands. If change comes to Israel this spring, it will be all about personalities, not ideology.