Gantz campaigned for Israel’s top job with minimal policy pronouncements and vague speeches. The strategy proved effective in an election that was largely a referendum on the colorful, contentious Netanyahu.
But Gantz’s resulting soft outlines are as much temperament as technique, according to those who know the man his Army buddies called “Benny-huta,” a play on his name that translates as “laid-back.”
In stark contrast to Netanyahu, a political showman whose command of the spotlight delights his base and annoys his opponents, Gantz has risen to the top of two Israeli institutions known for shooting and shouting — the military and politics — with a reputation for calm and moderation.
His ascent was rapid. He was the head of the army by age 52 and less than a year after launching his political career has become a top prospect for prime minister, potentially the third army chief of staff to reach that position after Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
“Nobody knows what kind of politician he’s going to be,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for Haaretz and biographer of Netanyahu. “The campaign didn’t tell us, and Gantz has never been in this kind of limelight before.”
For his political team, Gantz’s lack of a political record was an asset, allowing him to be presented as a battle-tested general and a centrist alternative to Netanyahu without tying him to specifics. One political commentator here compared him to Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character from the 1979 movie “Being There” who rose to presidential heights by uttering platitudes.
Gantz’s path to power is still uncertain. He faces the same closely divided Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that stymied Netanyahu. Gantz will have a month to find 61 lawmakers willing to support his bid to lead the country. If he fails to break the gridlock, Israel could endure its third national election in a year.
If he succeeds, he will crack the grip of the country’s longest-serving leader. With that prospect in view, Israelis are beginning to focus on the tall, blue-eyed former paratrooper who could well become the post-Netanyahu face of the nation.
Gantz, who turned 60 shortly before the election, grew up in a farming village in southern Israel founded by Holocaust survivors. Among them were his Hungarian and Romanian parents, who met on a ship on their way to Israel. The only boy amid three sisters, he began his military service at 18 and joined a paratrooper brigade.
He didn’t leave the ranks for almost four decades, a career that would put him in the middle of some of the country’s most momentous conflicts.
Among his first assignments was providing security for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s groundbreaking visit to Israel in 1977. He was the commander of forces in southern Lebanon when Israel pulled out of the country in 2000, and he rode in the last armored vehicle over the border. The Palestinian uprising in the Gaza Strip known as the Second Intifada erupted soon after he took charge of the division responsible for security in the region.
It is an action-packed résumé. But his men remember an officer who seldom raised his voice.
“He never had to scream,” said Aharon Fuchs, who served eight years under Gantz in the 1980s. “He just talked. It was with his eyes that he would tell you that you didn’t do something well.”
Gantz was known to make friends all along the chain of command, said Fuchs, down to the lowliest cooks and mechanics. For decades, the two have gone together every year to visit the family of a comrade killed on the Lebanese border. It’s one of several such honor calls Gantz is known to pay in a calendar filled with anniversaries of those who fell under his command.
“First we go to the cemetery and then to the house,” Fuchs said. “When Benny comes to a family like this, it’s like he’s coming to a holy place.”
But Gantz has his critics. Some of his military peers have told reporters that Gantz’s meetings — known to be long affairs where everyone gets to talk — sometimes smacked of indecision.
Naftali Bennett, a former education minister who served in Netanyahu’s government, went further, blaming Gantz’s slow response as chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas for producing a stalemate.
“If Hamas leaders could vote, they would vote for Benny Gantz, the hesitant general,” Bennett told the Irish Times during the campaign.
Gantz’s restraint, however, has also won him plaudits. One night in the 1980s, when Gantz was leading a patrol south of Jerusalem during the Palestinian uprising known as the First Intifada, molotov cocktails exploded beside his jeep. He and his men jumped out, but Gantz stopped them from firing into the dark.
“It was the middle of the night, we didn’t see anyone, so he didn’t want us to shoot,” said Dan Emergui, a radio man who was in the vehicle. “Benny has the right considerations.”
One of the missions Gantz recalls most fondly, friends say, was his command of a ground unit in Addis Ababa during Operation Solomon, the secret 36-hour airlift of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991.
The general has a preference for humanitarian tasks over combat, said a senior officer who rose through the ranks with Gantz and served with him on the general staff. After Gantz left the military in 2015, for instance, he worked on education projects for Jewish and Bedouin groups in the Negev desert.
“It all goes back to his roots, everything that his parents experienced,” said the senior officer, citing in particular Gantz’s mother’s experience at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. “He doesn’t hesitate in these operations, but he’s not a guy who wants to hurt human beings.”
Tales from the campaign trail, his supporters say, suggest Gantz has brought the same humanity to his second career. During the political campaign earlier this year, unconfirmed reports circulated that his cellphone had been hacked, perhaps by Iranian intelligence, perhaps revealing salacious material. It was the kind of anonymous attack common in Israeli politics, and some of his advisers pushed Gantz to take some swipes at Netanyahu’s domestic drama. He refused.
“Benny insisted on staying calm, even if it would cost him more votes,” said Chili Tropper, a Knesset member from Gantz’s Blue and White party. “He said he would not attack Bibi’s family,” Tropper added, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
But if Gantz does not want to engage in the rough stuff personally, he did not stop his campaign team from doing so. Working to establish the security credibility vital in Israel, the team introduced Gantz in videos that were more blood-and-guts than bread-and-honey, touting the “terrorists killed” and the Gaza neighborhoods bombed when he led the army.
His war record has cost him support from Israel’s Arab population. A slate of Arab parties, which finished third in the parliamentary voting after Gantz and Netanyahu’s factions, broke with decades of precedent to throw their support behind Gantz’s bid to become prime minister. But one of the factions backed out within hours, saying it could not endorse a “war criminal.”
His measured, deliberate style, however, has already paid dividends in his political career, his backers say. The most recent example, they say, was his ability to wrangle the fractured, squabbling center-left of Israel’s political spectrum into his Blue and White party, which slightly outpolled Netanyahu’s Likud party in the election last month.
“Nine months ago, he was not even involved in politics,” said Tropper. “Only a person with his temperament could do this.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.