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Israeli ex-general, polling closest to Netanyahu, joins 2019 election race

Polls predict former Israeli armed forces chief Benny Gantz would take around 15 seats in the elections for the Knesset scheduled for 9 April
Asked what he thought about Gantz, left, launching his own party, Netanyahu, right, said he 'does not interfere in how the left divides its votes'

A former Israeli armed forces chief who opinion polls show poses the toughest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bid for reelection next year has formally established a political party.

Details about Benny Gantz's Hosen L'Yisrael (Resilience for Israel) party, leaked to local media after it was registered on Thursday, gave little indication of its ideological tilt.

Along with preserving Israel as "a Jewish and democratic country," the party pledged unspecified changes to priorities in national security and the economy.

Gantz, 59, became Israel's top general in 2011 after stints as commander of forces on the combustible northern frontier with Syria and Lebanon and as military attache in Washington.

During his four-year term he oversaw two wars in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip.

Should Gantz emerge as a centre-left candidate in the 9 April election, that could work in Netanyahu's favour by further fracturing an already disparate opposition bloc, the Reuters news agency reported.

However, Israel's Haaretz newspaper said Gantz was expected to brand his new party as centrist, moderate and responsible, and had no wish to be associated with the Israeli left.

Asked on Thursday what he thought about Gantz launching his own party, the prime minister said he "does not interfere in how the left divides its votes".

Corruption investigations

Polling has predicted an easy win for Netanyahu in the election, with his rightist Likud party taking around 30 of parliament's 120 seats and on course to form a right-wing coalition government similar to the current cabinet.

The surveys, published after Netanyahu announced on Monday an election some seven months before one was due by law, gave second place to a then-hypothetical Gantz party. The polls forecast it would take around 15 seats.

However, according to the surveys, if Gantz joined the Yesh Atid party or the Zionist Union, he would gain 25 to 26 seats.

Haaretz reported Gantz had been in touch in recent weeks with former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.

The newspaper said the two men were reportedly discussing the option of running together in the election.

Ya'alon announced on Tuesday that he, too, was launching his own party but they are expected to run together under the same list.

Netanyahu is running for a fifth term under the shadow of three corruption investigations in which police have recommended his indictment. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Israel's attorney-general has still to decide whether to charge Netanyahu and it is unclear whether he will make his announcement before the election.

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