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Netanyahu challenger leaps in polls after maiden speech

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz's new party has surged in opinion polls since his maiden speech, positing him as the most significant political threat to incumbent premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

But despite the leap in the number of seats his Israel Resilience party is expected to win in the April 9 general election, Netanyahu still remains the best placed to form a governing coalition.

Gantz's party, which he formed just last month, could win between 21 and 24 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to opinion polls published by Israel's three main television stations, compared to the 12-15 seats predicted prior to Tuesday's official campaign launch.

Netanyahu's ruling right-wing Likud, which currently holds a quarter of the Knesset seats, was expected to win 30 or 31.

Privately owned Channel 13 also showed Gantz tied with Netanyahu on the question of fitness to be prime minister.

Israelis vote for parties in general elections, with the head of the largest party normally appointed by the president to form a coalition.

In his Tuesday speech, Gantz announced his intention to replace Netanyahu as prime minister and made public his opinions on key issues, revealing himself to be bullish on security and conservative in diplomacy.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 as well as between 1996-1999, has undertakings from the leaders from some of the smaller parties that they would only join a coalition headed by him.

The veteran premier, however, faces potential corruption charges, with media reports suggesting the attorney general might begin legal proceedings before the April vote.

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