As the Israeli election developed, it became clear that Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition “Blue and White” coalition, for a number of reasons, had come to be seen as the darling of the liberal set – especially here in the US.
Some, for example, were justifiably upset by Netanyahu’s gross corruption or unnerved by his authoritarian actions designed to intimidate the Press, silence non-governmental organisations, and strip the courts of their power. Others were optimistic that should Gantz win, Israel’s image would improve in the US and there would be the possibility of a “reset” in the US-Israel relationship. One publication described a Gantz victory as creating “a fresh slate and an opportunity to re-energise support for Israel.”
Driving this support for Gantz was the concern of liberal Democrats who have been troubled by recent polls showing a significant erosion of support for Israel among core Democratic constituents – especially millennial and minority voters – including American Jewish millennials. This growing alienation from Israel has in part been due to both Netanyahu’s repressive policies and his close relationship with Donald Trump. There could be no doubt that Trump had been excessive in his support for his Israeli partner: Cancelling the Iran Deal; moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem; the “gift” of the Golan Heights; cutting all US aid to the Palestinians; and remaining silent in the face of settlement expansion and Netanyahu’s declared intent to apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements.
Because American liberals have embraced the mantra of a “two-state solution” and see Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement construction and his pledge to “annex” the settlements as obstacles to that goal, they also fretted that a Netanyahu victory might spell the end of their idea of two states. American Jews had an additional frustration with Netanyahu as a result of his accommodation of the illiberal policies of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious community on issues of marriage, conversion, and women’s rights.
It was in this context, that Gantz became the “great hope.” I, however, never believed that he was.
In the first place, on the issue that mattered most to the future of peace – the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories – there was little that separated Netanyahu from Gantz. In fact, Gantz’ opening campaign advertisement featured Gaza in rubble (Gantz had been in charge of the most brutal and devastating of the Gaza wars), boasting the he had reduced parts of Gaza “back to the Stone Age.” And right before the election, an American Jewish publication reported on a Gantz speech laying out his “seven pillars” for peace with the Palestinians: “he said his priority was to ensure a Zionist ‘end state’ – Jewish and Democratic – and not a binational state, while keeping the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem, and modifying the 1967 lines...I don’t want to rule the Palestinians.” In addition to these goals, he added keeping the settlements and maintaining security control west of the Jordan River.
In addition to the positions he espoused, I felt that it was important to look at the composition of the governing coalition Gantz would have assembled had he emerged victorious. While the Press routinely referred to Gantz as the “centre-left” candidate, in reality, only a small fraction of his potential partners could be seen as “left.” In fact, most of his eventual partners were quite comfortable with Gantz’s “seven pillars”. Even if he had won the opportunity to form a government, Gantz never could have assembled a coalition of 61 Knesset members without adding the parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel – something that, early on, Gantz had said he would never do.
With Netanyahu back for his fifth term as prime minister, liberals must now face reality. They can no longer see Israel as a romanticised “idea” of a progressive state governed by liberal values. Rather it has demonstrated that it is an illiberal ethno-nationalist society that has applied an apartheid-like repressive system to enable their continued rule over a captive Palestinian people.