JERUSALEM — He kept quiet for months, his poll numbers creeping up against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces who is offering himself up as a savior to the opposition, is finally making some noise.
In three hypermacho new campaign videos, Mr. Gantz, a three-star general who fought two wars in Gaza, flaunts the numbers of “terrorists killed” and “targets destroyed.”
Palestinian neighborhoods are shown in ruins. A Hamas military leader is mocked as his car is seen exploding in an assassination by airstrike. The soundtrack wouldn’t be out of place in a “Call of Duty” commercial. Nor would the tagline: “Only the strong prevail.”
The body-count braggadocio horrified leftists, who asked acidly why the 500-plus Palestinian children killed hadn’t rated a mention. And it failed to mollify right-wing rivals who say that Mr. Gantz’s reluctant-warrior hesitancy and command miscalculations had actually cost Israeli soldiers’ lives.
Yet in a fourth ad, Mr. Gantz drops the warmongering and picks up an olive branch.
“There’s no shame in striving for peace,” he says, as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s photo appears — daring to utter a word that Israeli politicians have long avoided for fear of being branded weak or naïve. “Do we want to send our kids off to fight in another 25 years?” he asks. “What will we tell them? That we did nothing? That we didn’t try?”
And with this blatant bid for the mantle of Mr. Rabin — the first military chief of staff to make the leap to prime minister and peacemaker — Mr. Gantz, 59, is proving himself the most intriguing challenger in what is easily the most interesting Israeli election in a decade.
In part, that’s an indictment of the field.
Aside from Mr. Gantz, who has formed a new center-right party, the main threat to Mr. Netanyahu’s 10-year grip on power is Yair Lapid, a journalist-turned-lawmaker who founded the Yesh Atid party (Hebrew for There Is a Future) and built it into a force, with a nationwide organization, a cogent policy agenda and a carefully calibrated compass pointing to the political center.
Yet Mr. Lapid doesn’t even talk about the Palestinians in his stump speech. He calls for a slow and cautious separation at best between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and dismisses a speedier settlement as a “pipe dream.”
On the left, the ugly breakup of the left-of-center Zionist Union party damaged both Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who once bested Mr. Netanyahu in an election but was unable to form a government, and Avi Gabbay, the Labor Party leader who publicly dumped her after she repeatedly made clear her lack of confidence in his leadership.
Now, both are calling for the center and the left to unite into one electoral bloc. But it’s unclear whether anyone is listening. Ms. Livni is fighting just to hold on to her seat in Parliament, and a small parade of Labor officials left the party in protest of Mr. Gabbay.
On the right, Mr. Netanyahu, 69, towers above his Likud party and his coalition of pro-settlement and ultra-Orthodox factions. But the prime minister has been sent into a bunker by corruption investigations that appear to be coming to a head.
With ads singling out the reporters he blames for his predicament — “They won’t decide,” screams a billboard along Tel Aviv’s busiest highway — and the attorney general who is weighing whether to prosecute him, Mr. Netanyahu has been too preoccupied with projecting his own victimhood to offer voters much more of a reason to give him another term.
All of which would seem to create an opening for a strong, silent type, someone whose hooded eyes themselves convey war-weary experience, whose entire career has been spent not in partisan backstabbing but in Israel’s most unifying institution: the army.
“The Israeli public would only buy a platform of peace from somebody with impeccable security credentials,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a Rabin biographer and Tel Aviv University professor.
That’s the plan, anyway. Evidence that it’s working appeared in a recent poll showing that in a head-to-head contest for prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu would edge Mr. Gantz by only three percentage points, a statistical tie.
But Israelis don’t vote for prime minister. In the parliamentary system, they vote for parties, and Mr. Gantz’s is trailing Mr. Lapid’s by a few points. Likud is outpolling the two of them combined.
If Mr. Gantz’s career has taught him anything, though, it’s that he has nothing to lose by putting himself in position to take advantage of a sudden vacancy.
In 2011, when Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the departing chief of staff, fought over who should succeed him with then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mr. Gantz was neither man’s choice. But two separate scandals left the army in need of a consensus candidate, and Mr. Gantz, who had already retired, was summoned back into service.
That was just one of a series of unexpected promotions.
He took command of the West Bank city of Hebron after a settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs. He took over in south Lebanon when his predecessor was killed by a roadside bomb. And he took command of the West Bank days before the start of the second Palestinian uprising after his predecessor was cashiered over a friendly-fire incident that killed three commandos.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Gantz was raised in a religious home and rose through the military ranks so fast — battalion commander at 28, brigadier general at 39, major general at 42 — that he was nicknamed “the Prince.” Army publicists loved his cool demeanor and command of English: He was interviewed on “60 Minutes” twice in 2000.
Detractors said he was stumbling upward, that in his short time on the West Bank he showed little initiative and let bad things happen.
A soldier from the Druze minority, Madhat Yusef, was shot during an attack on Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, and while Mr. Gantz waited for Palestinian security forces to help, Mr. Yusef bled to death. And settlers still fume over the military’s response to a Palestinian attack in 2000 on a group of Jewish hikers near Nablus that killed a rabbi. It took Mr. Gantz’s soldiers hours to rescue them.
Mr. Gantz could be his own worst critic. He agonized over a 1997 commando mission against the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in which three men were killed in an ambush, according to a 2002 profile. And he publicly enumerated his own blunders in the hasty pullout from southern Lebanon in 2000, declaring, “I failed.”
Some saw this as brave and sensitive, others as showy or whiny.
A bigger knock on him was that he had a low tolerance for risk, above all in the 2014 Gaza war. The army wasn’t ready for the number of attack tunnels Hamas had dug, or to find, fight in and destroy them, said Amos Harel, a military analyst for the newspaper Haaretz.
“It was a miserable draw in the end,” Mr. Harel said. “The sense was that the army was not pushing forward enough, and that they were ill-prepared.”
The New Right party, led by Naftali Bennett, is less measured. It has repeatedly said that Mr. Gantz was “asleep” — a jab at his appearance — in response to the tunnels and that he played down the threat they posed even as Hamas fighters used them to kill Israeli troops.
Yet Mr. Gantz’s caution required courage when Mr. Netanyahu, drawing comparisons to the Holocaust, agitated to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Mr. Gantz pushed back in 2012, saying such decisions needed to be made “without hysteria,” and called Iran’s leaders “very rational people” who would not be so foolish as to try to acquire a bomb.
And it was under Mr. Gantz that Israel’s below-the-radar attacks began against Iran in Syria, Mr. Harel said.
Orit Galili-Zucker, a political branding consultant who has worked for both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak, said Mr. Gantz could appeal to voters fed up with politics and Mr. Netanyahu “but always glad on the other hand to see Gaza destroyed.”
But the ad campaign also risks overselling Mr. Gantz’s toughness. The olive-drab color scheme, stylized I.D.F. star and “Israel Before All” slogan — shades of “America First” — are reminders that he has taken positions on few of the most divisive social and economic issues other than Israel’s polarizing nation-state law, which proclaims the country “the national home of the Jewish people” and which he says must be amended.
“There’s life outside the battlefield,” Orly Levy-Abekasis, the leader of a small center-right party, said in a witty sendup. Another wag imagined him responding to traffic or overcrowded hospitals with an F-15.
His rivals insinuate that Mr. Gantz is keeping mum because, opposition be damned, he would be perfectly happy to be Mr. Netanyahu’s next defense minister.
But in fairness, that could also be the quickest route to the top, if another vacancy were to materialize.