Netanyahu's challenger Gantz to break silence

Benny Gantz's campaign so far has stoked his residual popularity as an IDF general with graphic ads claiming hundreds of Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's toughest rival in Israel's April ballot, former military chief and political enigma Benny Gantz, will set out his goals on Tuesday in a marker of the centre-left opposition's prospects.

Polls predict a Netanyahu reelection, with his right-wing Likud party taking around 30 of parliament's 120 seats, and Gantz's Resilience party coming a distant second with around 15.

That would line Gantz up to join a future Netanyahu-led coalition government - unless the ex-general tries to mobilise like-minded factions against the incumbent, now in his fourth term.

Considered a political centrist, in the event of a Netanyahu victory most 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.

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 and 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.

The stone age

Much depends on the ideology of Gantz's newly formed party. On this he has so far been silent. His campaign, meanwhile, has stoked his residual popularity from his term as top general with graphic ads claiming hundreds of Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

During his four-year term Gantz oversaw two extremely destructive military assaults on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in which the vast majority of those killed were Palestinian civilians, leading to accusations that the Israeli army committed war crimes.

The campaign ads boast that under Gantz's leadership, the densely populated Strip - which is under blockade from Israel and Egypt - was bombed "back to the stone age."

But mindful of Israeli moderates, Gantz's image-makers also cast him in a softer light, releasing a video in which the 59-year-old says "there is no shame in pursuing peace".

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.

At a launch party on Tuesday timed to coincide with the evening TV news, Gantz was due to deliver his first political speech, with voters watching for combustible policy points like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, frozen since 2014, or corruption allegations dogging Netanyahu.

Tamar Hermann, a scholar with the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, predicted Gantz would try to stay "very vague on certain topics: for instance 'yes to peace but Israel's security comes first'".

For Netanyahu to be defeated, Hermann said, Gantz would have to bring together disparate centre-left parties.

"Anything can happen, but at the moment the most likely outcome of the election would be a (Netanyahu-led) centre-right government," she said.

A weak leftist?

On Tuesday, Gantz agreed with another former chief of staff and ex-defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, to form a centre-right 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 unveiled his own party, Telem, in December.

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".

Netanyahu's Likud party has also sought to write Gantz off as a "leftist", casting him as an untested whimsy candidate and no match for the incumbent.

As the election approaches, and facing possible indictment, Netanyahu has highlighted his handling of national security, publicly acknowledging Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Martin Dempsey, a retired US army general whose tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mirrored that of Gantz as Israeli armed forces chief between 2011 and 2015, said that he would bring "an open mind to change" and have the "instincts to build a team to solve the most urgent challenges".

"His silence would likely signal to me that he is carefully and deliberately thinking and learning, preparing to express his views with clarity and confidence, so that he knows who and what he wants to be and do when the political winds begin to blow with greater velocity," Dempsey said.