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Main Netanyahu challenger to launch Israel election bid

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Jerusalem (AFP)

A former Israeli military chief regarded as the only serious challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to formally unveil his election campaign Tuesday, breaking his silence on his party's platform.

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 carried out since its launch in December.

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

The widely respected former military chief of staff 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 the Tuesday speech.

Opinion polls show Netanyahu winning the April election, however the long-serving premier faces potential corruption charges that may shake up the campaign.

Considered a political centrist, in the event of a Netanyahu victory commentators see Gantz as likely to join a coalition led by the man who has been premier since 2009 -- including from 2011-2015, when Gantz was the chief of military 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 31 lawmakers voted in on April.

One issue Gantz could address in his Tuesday speech would be whether he would serve in a coalition led by Netanyahu, if the premier was 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' -

In a rare remark 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, leading to Netanyahu calling him a "leftist".

Gantz has meanwhile become the target of a campaign from the harder right wing 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 some messages on social media promising "something different" for Israel and a song pledging "no more right or left", Gantz has so far just played up 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.

And in another video, Gantz stresses the need to strive to make Arab-Israeli peace.

Some political commentators have suggested he could join another former armed forces chief, Moshe Yaalon, in a centre-right alliance.

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

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