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Main Netanyahu challenger to launch Israel election bid

Retired Israeli military chief Benny Gantz is launching his long-awaited political campaign Tuesday, seeking to position himself as the first serious challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decade-long rule. For many voters weary of Netanyahu's long rule, Gantz's fresh face is enough of a draw, regardless of what he say. Like most senior retired security officials, Gantz is believed to hold moderate positions toward the Palestinians. That would set him apart from Netanyahu.

A former Israeli military chief regarded as the only serious electoral challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to formally unveil his campaign Tuesday, breaking his silence on his new party's platform for April polls.

Benny Gantz was to deliver a speech in Tel Aviv to "discuss all the issues at hand" and respond to claims made against him by political opponents, a source close to the retired general told AFP.

His new party, Israel Resilience, could emerge as the second largest in parliament in the April 9 general election, according to polls taken since its launch in December.

On Tuesday, Gantz agreed with another former chief of staff and ex-defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, to form a joint list for the vote, according to Israeli media reports.

Yaalon served as Netanyahu's defence minister from 2013 to 2016, but has since become a critic of the premier. He has also unveiled his own party, Telem.

Generals are revered in Israel, though many who cross into political life after their military service discover that their army experience does not prepare them for the challenges of civilian decision-making.

Gantz, widely respected as army chief, has kept his cards close to his chest and made few public comments since December.

But the tall, square-jawed 59-year-old was expected to clear up question marks surrounding his political ambitions in his speech on Tuesday.

Opinion polls predict Netanyahu's Likud party will win the April election.

But the veteran premier faces potential corruption charges that could cost Likud valuable seats.

In the event of a Netanyahu victory, commentators predict centrist Gantz may join a coalition led by the man who has been premier since 2009 -- including from 2011-2015, when Gantz was chief of staff.

A poll last week said Gantz's Israel Resilience could win 15 seats out of the Knesset's 120, with Netanyahu's Likud remaining the largest faction with its 31 lawmakers.

One issue Gantz may address in his Tuesday speech would be whether he would serve in a coalition led by Netanyahu, if the premier were formally charged with corruption.

Using vague terms about hope and unity, Gantz has so far avoided directly attacking Netanyahu, who could be the one to appoint him as a senior minister in a future government.

He could even perhaps be rewarded with the defence portfolio, which Netanyahu currently holds himself.

- 'NO MORE RIGHT OR LEFT' -
However, Gantz has committed to amending a contentious law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, in order to accommodate its Druze minority.

That prompted Netanyahu to call him a "leftist".

Gantz has also become the target of a campaign from the harder right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Naftali Bennett of the newly founded Hayamin Hehadash used a recording from 2015 in which Gantz said he "risked Israeli soldiers" to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians, in a bid to dub the general as part of the "weak left".

Apart from messages on social media promising "something different" for Israel and a song pledging "no more right or left", Gantz has so far revealed little beyond his military credentials.

He has boasted in videos of the number of Palestinian militants killed and targets destroyed under his command in the 2014 war with Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers.

In another video, Gantz stressed the need to strive for Arab-Israeli peace.

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