By Eli Kowaz, JTA
In just over 20 minutes, Benny Gantz cemented himself as the most likely candidate to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli elections.
“I thank Netanyahu for his 10 years as prime minister. We’ll take it from here,” Gantz declared in front of hundreds of supporters and journalists.
In the hours after his speech, Gantz’s popularity skyrocketed: A poll by Hadashot 13 found Netanyahu and Gantz tied, at 42 percent each, for most preferred prime minister and that his newly formed Israel Resilience party would pick up 24 seats, more than double recent estimates and just six seats behind Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Gantz drew praise from large parts of the Israeli media. Political commentators including Reshet’s Barak Raviv and Hadashot’s Amnon Abramovitch compared him to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote that “for the first time in a decade, the opposition has someone with authority and military experience, and Gantz’s speech showed he can lead the anti-Netanyahu camp.”
In addition to the spike in the polls, the best indication that Gantz’s speech struck a nerve was the Likud’s panicked response. Ministers Gilad Erdan and Miri Regev struggled to present talking points they were handed earlier that day on primetime news. They both tried to paint Gantz and his new partner, the one-time chief of staff and defense minister Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, as leftists in center-right clothing, but their arguments came off as desperate and incoherent. Regev embarrassingly waved a paper with talking points she had written down.
We’ve known for months that Gantz would enter Israeli politics, but his electoral potential remained uncertain – until now. After his blockbuster speech, in which he revealed his political views for the first time, Gantz made clear that he poses a credible threat to Netanyahu, a feat no candidate has achieved in the past decade.
Netanyahu and his party had hoped that Gantz would present a leftist agenda. The majority of the Israeli public identifies as either center or right, and a challenge from the left would be much easier for Likud to dismiss. But the center is precisely where Gantz is positioning himself.
Gantz placed a special focus on security, calling out Israel’s enemies by name: President Rouhani in Iran, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah in Lebanon and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in Gaza, warning Sinwar, “I suggest you not test me again,” referring to the blow delivered by the Israeli army to Hamas during the 2014 Gaza war while Gantz was chief of staff. Gantz criticized the Netanyahu government for its Gaza policy in particular, especially for allowing $15 million payments from Qatar into Gaza in suitcases to fund Hamas salaries.
At the same time, Gantz promised his government will “strive for peace” and “not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change,” giving credit to prime ministers Begin, Rabin and even Netanyahu, labeling each of them “patriots.”
By the looks of things, Gantz will do his best to avoid specifics on the Palestinian issue, which only got a brief mention in his opening speech. From the little he said, we can surmise that Gantz will advance gradual separation from the Palestinians rather than annexation of the West Bank. He promised to bolster all the settlement blocs and that Jerusalem would remain Israel’s undivided eternal capital, and assured listeners that Israel’s eastern security border will remain the Jordan Valley.
Of course, none of this stopped Netanyahu from tweeting that Gantz is a “weak left[ist].”
But more than anything, Gantz called for national unity among Israelis.
“The struggle between left and right rips us apart,” he declared, referring to the growing divide in Israel, an issue that is particularly important to Israelis today. The 2018 Israel Democracy Institute Index found that for the first time in 16 years, Jewish Israelis view the friction between the right and the left as the No. 1 tension within Israeli society – above that between Jews and Arabs.
Gantz’s criticism of Netanyahu focused on the incumbent’s legal issues. He noted that no prime minister should serve under indictment, referring to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s expected recommendation to indict the prime minister for corruption before April’s election, and lambasted Netanyahu’s public showcasing of covert military operations for political gain. Gantz also criticized Netanyahu’s divisive targeting of Israel’s leftists and minorities, referring to the Nation-State Law and Netanyahu’s infamous fabricated 2015 story that the left was sponsoring buses sending “droves” of Israeli Arabs to the polls.
Gantz addressed nearly every issue in the public discourse: security fears on the northern front near the Syrian border, Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces, treatment of Israel’s minorities, the increasing divide between the right and left, the relationship between religion and state, LGBT rights, public corruption and the importance of pursuing peace with the Palestinians.
Though the official campaign period is 90 days, campaigns only start to heat up about 45 days before the April 9 election, when the party lists are confirmed. Nonetheless, after Gantz’s speech, it appears that Netanyahu will face a formidable challenger with a strong security background.
To win this election, Gantz must take more seats than the prime minister’s Likud, which controls 30 seats. To do this, Gantz will need to convince other prominent politicians to merge into his party.
Hours before the event, Gantz reached an agreement to join forces with Yaalon, welcoming him to the stage near the end of his remarks. Yaalon resigned as defense minister in May 2016 in response to political pressure for defending the decision to prosecute Elor Azaria, a soldier that executed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron. Yaalon remains widely respected in Israeli society and cements Gantz and Resilience for Israel, or Hosen LeYisrael, as a center-right party with a strong security portfolio.
The road ahead is a long one. But if Gantz can reproduce more moments like his speech, and if Israelis can’t keep his catchy jingle out of their heads, then he just might be able to pull this off.
Jewish things to know about Howard Schultz
By Josefin Dolsten, JTA
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said he is “seriously thinking of running for president,” and a lot of people aren’t happy about it.
Schultz, who stepped down as chairman of the coffee chain in June, is a lifelong Democrat but has said he would run as a “centrist independent.” That has many on the left worrying that he could split the vote and help re-elect President Donald Trump.
“He should stick to coffee,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., joked.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has announced her intentions to run for her party’s 2020 nomination, grouped Schultz with other “billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else.”
Plenty of non-politicians have excoriated the Jewish billionaire, too, like the guy who yelled at him during an event for Schultz’s new book in New York City.
Others think that Schultz, who has publicly lamented the polarization of the Democratic Party, has actually done Democrats a favor by warning them that there is still a large contingent of moderate voters who they shouldn’t neglect leading up to ’20.
Regardless of perspective, the potential for a Schultz campaign has shaken up the political landscape. The 65-year-old, who Forbes estimated last year has a net worth of approximately $2.9 billion, has an intriguing backstory, from growing up in a working-class household in Brooklyn to making Starbucks into the global giant it is today.
Asked “what effect” his Jewishness would have on a campaign, Schultz said that “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president, I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.”
Still, there are more than a few interesting Jewish tidbits about the coffee magnate and possible presidential contender.
1. He was raised in a working-class Jewish family.
Schultz grew up in federally subsidized housing in Brooklyn and his father, a World War II veteran, had a series of blue-collar jobs, including delivering cloth diapers. In a 2011 article for the Jewish website Aish, Shultz recalled coming home to find his father on the couch with a broken leg.
“He hated this job bitterly, but on this one day, he wished he had it back,” Schultz wrote. “In 1960 in America, most companies had no workers’ compensation and no hospitalization for a blue-collar worker who had an accident. I saw firsthand the plight of the working class.”
That experience influenced Shultz, who said that at Starbucks, “What I wanted to try to do was build a kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.”
2. He had a transformative encounter with an Orthodox rabbi.
In the Aish essay, Schultz recalled his meeting with the late Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel on a trip to Israel with a group of American businessmen. Finkel, who led the prominent Mir Yeshiva, asked the group what the lesson of the Holocaust was, but no one could come up with a satisfactory answer. The rabbi shared a story of Jews in a concentration camp that made a point related to Schultz’s business.
“As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?’
And Rabbi Finkel says, “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit because we pushed the blanket to five others.”
And with that he stood up and said, “Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people.”
Talking to the rabbi clearly had a big impact on Schultz. In a 2015 article in The New York Times, he shared another anecdote from the meeting.
“A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further.
“I’ve never been closer than this,” the rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why.
“You go,” he said. “I’m not worthy.”
3. Starbucks once issued a statement saying Schultz does not donate to the Israeli government or army.
In 2014, the company clarified that neither it nor Schultz provide financial support to the Israeli government or army. Starbucks spokesman Jim Olson told CNN that the company released the statement because there had been an “uptick in false rumors out there about Starbucks and the Middle East.” At the time, a campaign calling for a boycott of the coffee chain due to its support for “the occupation of Palestine” had gained more than 240,000 supporters, according to CNN.
It wasn’t the first time Schultz caught fire from pro-Palestinian activists. They have cited remarks he made at a Seattle synagogue in 2006 regarding the rise of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, show that he is anti-Palestinian.
5. Is Starbucks kosher? It depends on who you ask, and when.
The question of whether kosher observers can enjoy Starbucks coffee isn’t a straightforward one to answer. Star-K used to keep a list of beverages that were “kosher friendly,” meaning the agency deemed them permissible to consume without actually certifying them as kosher. But in July, Star-K said it could no longer vouch for those products. The agency now provides a more limited list of kosher-friendly products.
The list also includes items from Teavana, the tea company that Starbucks acquired in 2012, although it deems that three of the items are only acceptable for people who are traveling. In 2013, Schultz indicated that the tea store would be certified kosher in the future. The clock apparently is still ticking on that one.
6. After the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Schultz spoke about being Jewish to his employees.
Days after the violence in Virginia, where neo-Nazis and white nationalists gathered and clashed with counterprotesters in August 2017, Schultz held a meeting with Starbucks employees.
“I come to you as an American, as a Jew, as a parent, as a grandparent, as an almost 40-year partner of a company I love so dearly,” Schultz told them. “I come to you with profound, profound concern about the lack of character, morality, humanity and what this might mean for young children and young generations that are growing up at a time that we are imprinting them with behaviors and conduct that are beneath the United States of America.”