Thursday, January 31, 2019

If Benny Gantz Becomes PM, It Will/Will Not Be a Big Deal

Benny Gantz is getting people whispering about an impossible possibility:

Bibi Netanyahu might not win reelection as Israel's Prime Minister. Gantz's new party is surging in the polls, and he's pulled even with Netanyahu in the "who should be prime minister question" -- an area where Bibi has reigned unchallenged for years (except for the always popular "someone else").

Is that a big deal? Well, yes. And no. It depends on your vantage.

On the one hand, if Gantz does take over the top spot, you can be prepared for the usual leftist voices to dismiss it as utterly meaningless. Since for them, Israel can never improve, only decay, they will immediately call Gantz a war criminal and indicate that he's not materially different than Bibi anyway. Since for them, the idea that Israeli society can meaningfully change via normal democratic processes is an anathema to the more fundamental proposition that Israeli society is rotted through and through, they need to deny the possibility that Gantz could possibly represent meaningful change.

But while the more uncompromising version of the "it's no big deal" take can be dismissed, it would likewise be wrong to view Gantz as the harbinger of some sort of resurgent Israeli left. Gantz is not a leftist. His roots are on the center-right, he's very much the consummate "good soldier" -- competent, effective, patriotic, and a good executor, but without much of an internal ideological drive.

Yet that doesn't mean his election would be no big deal.

First, Gantz is part of the "soft center-right",  generally comprised of political or military officials who, precisely because their main focus has been on military and security affairs, have concluded that the uncompromising Israeli right poses a long-term danger to Israel's security and survival. Given the complete disarray that currently characterizes the Israeli left, Israeli politics these days basically is a debate between "right-wingers who are marching full out towards annexation" and "ex-right-wingers who see the writing on the wall."

But while that might sound like a cynical way of putting it, the fact is that "security-minded ex-right winger who pivots to the center" includes several figures who have taken some of the most prominent steps towards Israeli/Arab peace. Ariel Sharon is the obvious name, but Tzipi Livni also comes from these roots. And more broadly, if there's one trend in Israeli politics that's seemingly remained stable over its existence, it's that the Israeli public is more willing to cut deals when they know that the dealmaker carries a big boomstick in case things go wrong. That applied to Sharon, obviously, but also Begin and Rabin.

Second, it is almost certain that Gantz's coalition will be well to the left of the status quo -- there's even been murmurs that some Israeli Arab parties will break their longstanding suspicion of joining a coalition. A coalition with Gantz at the head, needing to satisfy demands coming from his left, is going to be leaps-and-bounds different than a coalition with Bibi at the head, needing to satisfy demands coming from his right.

And finally, Gantz winning means Bibi loses. That's a huge deal on its own. Netanyahu has been seemingly untouchable for a long time -- even the prospect of a criminal indictment hardly seemed like it would be a bump in his political road. Just dislodging the man on the throne is a legitimate shake-up in its own right. And it offers hope that things can change, that Israel can get out of the rut it's been stuck in and move in a different direction. Just the possibility of energizing a different cohort of voters beyond the settler right has the potential to be a game-changer.

So go Benny! You wouldn't be my first choice as Prime Minister, but if you can take down Netanyahu, I wish you the best of luck.

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