Why Benny Gantz is more dangerous than the Kahanists

Despite taking pride in bombing Gaza to the Stone Age, Benny Gantz is still portrayed by the Israeli media as a dove who wants to end the conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By Tom Mehager

Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019. (Flash90)
Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019. (Flash90)

The partnership between the ruling Likud party and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party is a prime example of how racism has been legitimized in Israeli public discourse in recent years. If in the past Likud had openly condemned Meir Kahane and his descendants, today those red lines no longer exist.

Even Shas leader Aryeh Deri showed signs of partnering with Otzma’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, something that in the past would have been beyond the pale for his party. All of a sudden, Netanyahu’s now-famous election day warnings of “Arabs going to the polls in droves” have become a terrifying reality. The prime minister has effectively paved the way for unabashed expressions of racism at the highest levels of Israeli society.

Yet the most horrific moment in the current election cycle has undoubtedly been the launch of former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s election campaign, in which he bragged about “sending parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age.” In this sense, Gantz and the popular mood he represents, are far more dangerous than the blatant racism of the Kahanists.

They are dangerous precisely because they can be translated far more easily into actual policies that could physically harm the right of people to life, shelter, and access to water, electricity, and infrastructure. If this is how we measure danger, then Benny Gantz is one of the most dangerous people in Israel — far more dangerous than Kahanists such as Ben-Gvir.

It is important to point out the differences between the violence of a political leader such as Gantz and that of Israel’s extreme right parties. While there is widespread condemnation of the far right from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as international community, Gantz represents the Israeli mainstream — proper, moderate, moral, and he has won the support of Israel’s mainstream media outlets, with left-wing parties such as Meretz expressing their support for his candidacy.

Gantz’s comments are reflective of a violence that is legitimate and acceptable in Israel — the kind of violence whose victims we do not talk or care about. If Gantz truly takes pride in carrying out such a criminal policy in the past — and it is clear not only that Israeli society lacks any mechanism or alternative voice to prevent it in the future (since it pays dividends to wide swaths of the voting public) — then a Gantz victory poses a real danger.

Members of Otzma Yehudit Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir attend the Central Elections Committee for the 21st Knesset elections during a hearing to disqualify them from running in the elections. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Members of Otzma Yehudit Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir attend a Central Elections Committee hearing on their disqualification from running in the upcoming elections. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In Israeli mainstream discourse, Gantz’s Blue and White party is widely viewed as center-left, one that will work toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as opposed to the right and the settlers. But this is precisely the kind of collective self-denial that has previously blown up in our faces: Ehud Barak, the erstwhile leader of the Israeli left, returned from negotiations with the Palestinian leadership at Camp David by declaring there was “no partner” for peace. Until this very day, his remarks have been weaponized by the right every time the possibility of talks is raised. And they are right: “If the left has led negotiations, made various peace proposals, and still says there is no partner for peace, then of course there is no alternative to using force,” the thinking goes.

Moreover, if Benny Gantz, the moderate politician embraced by the Israeli left, prides himself on the violence he has meted out to the residents of Gaza, then Netanyahu and the right will only demand to use even more violence in every future military confrontation. Meanwhile, Gazans will be made to pay the price for Israel’s deceitful public discourse.

So how is it possible that Gantz is seen as a worthy alternative to the rule of the right? Because his Ashkenazi identity still enchants large parts of the Israeli public. Gantz carries with him the cultural capital of being the “salt of the earth” — a tall, blue-eyed, Israeli top-ranking military official. The 2019 version of Yitzhak Rabin. But just as the violence of Israel’s founding fathers is ignored by much of the Israeli left, which sees the roots of the conflict in the occupation of 1967, despite endless research and testimonies on the ethnic cleansing committed by the Zionist movement in 1948, so too is the violence committed by Benny Gantz ignored. No wonder, then, that it is so easy for the left to bristle at Netanyahu’s deal with fascists.

Tom Mehager is a Mizrahi activist. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.