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Former Israeli General Jumps Into 2019 Race To Challenge Netanyahu


Israel is holding elections this April, and a political newcomer has emerged to run against Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He's a former army general. And polls show he could be a serious challenger to Netanyahu's longtime hold on power. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Benny Gantz was the Israeli army chief of staff from 2011 to 2015. He led the army during two wars in the Gaza Strip. He's a tall and youthful 59 years old. In recent years, he mostly stayed out of the public eye. But he has commented publicly on Israel's challenges. Here he is in an interview in 2016.


BENNY GANTZ: Israel is a strong country in the region. And it will stay strong if our people will stay committed to Israel, whether it's to defend it, whether it's to develop it. Physically speaking and technically speaking and socially speaking, there is a lot that needs to be done here.

ESTRIN: What Benny Gantz did today was form a new party called Israel Resilience. The word in Hebrew, (speaking Hebrew), indicates a toughness. And he used the word in a speech last month when he offered veiled criticism of the current leadership. There had been a lot of speculation that Gantz might run for office. When pollsters asked Israelis who they'd vote for, Gantz came in second even before he announced his candidacy. Gantz hasn't spelled out his political platform yet, but Israeli commentators believe he'll brand himself a centrist. In a speech this year, he differentiated himself from Netanyahu by saying that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Israel's top priority.


GANTZ: Our No. 1 interest is to find a solution. This is not just a political question of left or right.

ESTRIN: For now, polls show Netanyahu winning the elections. But they also show Gantz could pose a serious challenge if he builds alliances with other centrist politicians. Israelis tend to favor leaders with military credentials like Gantz. And his strong standing in the polls may also indicate a desire for change after nearly 10 years of Netanyahu in power. Netanyahu also faces the challenge of corruption allegations. Israel's attorney general could bring charges against him before the election. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.