Benny Gantz’s first campaign video lasted 17 seconds and contained 19 gruffly spoken Hebrew words. It started with him declaring, “For me, Israel comes first.” It ended with him smiling and saying, "Seems I’ve talked too much.” The words in the middle conveyed nothing about a program or ideology. The video perfectly expressed the former general’s political positions — or rather, his deliberate evasion of expressing positions.
Yet Gantz is the star of the campaign for Israel’s April 9 elections. Polls show his new Israel Resilience Party could get 15 seats in the 120-member parliament, second only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Besides Netanyahu, he’s the most talked-about candidate in the media. He retired as military chief of staff in 2015 but has never held elected office or any other civilian position. For his party’s list of candidates, Gantz is reportedly rejecting serving members of parliament. He wants non-politicians.
Gantz is often described as being a centrist, which mostly means that voters who are unhappy both with the right and the left can project their inchoate hopes and despair on his empty screen. Support for him may fade when he finally takes some clear stands, as he has implied he will do this week.
His popularity so far, however, is the strongest indication of the hollowness of the Israeli election campaign. In part, the reasons are peculiar to Israel. On another level, the campaign reflects a dangerous trend in the democratic world: widespread antagonism toward politicians.
Traditional Israeli issues — the immense gap between rich and poor; housing costs; even the usually furious dispute about applying the military draft to the ultra-Orthodox — have faded from the debate this year. Global questions such as climate change are absent, even though drought and rising temperatures could render the country uninhabitable.
For decades, the central question in Israeli politics was whether to give up occupied territory for peace. This year, only one candidate, ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, has put an agreement with the Palestinians at the center of her campaign. Polls show Livni short of the 3.25 percent of the national vote needed to enter parliament. The wide center of Israeli politics consists of voters who vaguely believe an agreement is necessary and despair of it happening.
The only issue that has pushed its way into the fraught emptiness is Netanyahu himself, and expectations that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will decide before the election to indict him for corruption. Unable to avoid the subject, Netanyahu has fixated on it. This month, he asked for prime-time national TV coverage for a “dramatic announcement.” It turned out to be a screed against the police over a minor point in how they’ve investigated him.
Netanyahu's populist campaign presents the allegations against him as a conspiracy of elites to depose him. He has attacked the national police chief and Mandelblit. Billboards recently appeared showing four nationally prominent columnists and investigative reporters, with the legend, "They won't decide. You'll decide," followed by a Hebrew idiom roughly meaning, "Just to show them. Netanyahu."
This is a gift to Netanyahu's opponents and a trap. They can defend legal authorities and the rule of the law. Yet by focusing on Netanyahu and corruption, they boost his victim pose. And it's easy to yield to the temptation to talk about why Netanyahu shouldn't be in government, rather than about what they would do with power.
The scandals around Netanyahu have another effect: They add to the perception that politics as such is corrupt and that politicians — all of them — are self-serving. Media coverage that presents politicians' compromises and changes in positions as lack of principle adds to this distorted perception.
This is the key to Gantz’s appeal: He’s not a politician; he’s a general. He knows how to run things.
In this, the strange Israeli election season fits a larger global trend of anti-politics. The same disgust with politicians led, for instance, to the idea that a celebrity businessman would be a good president for the United States. Even with all their differences, it also led to the idea that a technocratic economist, Emmanuel Macron, could solve France’s problems.
The thing is, politics requires tremendous skill. It requires negotiating and compromise. It requires clearly stated positions — and the ability to adjust them to new circumstances. It’s best learned by doing politics. It’s not learned by running organizations where you can just give orders. There are some corrupt politicians and also many principled ones.
The idea that you should pick a non-politician to run a country because politicians are sullied by politics is as crazy as choosing a lawyer or guitarist to operate on you because surgeons all have blood on their hands.
Quite aside from Netanyahu’s policies, it’s terrifying to see that he’s likely to be reelected while waging war against the country’s legal institutions. It’s just as frightening to see voters put their hope in an ex-general with an aversion to revealing his views. Men on horseback do not save democracies. Sometimes they destroy them.