TEL AVIV — By all rights, the former army chief of staff gunning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s job should be in a commanding position heading into the do-over election here on Sept. 17.
Benny Gantz’s upstart Blue and White Party fought Mr. Netanyahu’s reigning Likud to a tie in the April vote, and Mr. Netanyahu has only grown more vulnerable since failing to assemble a new government with his usual array of right-wing and ultrareligious parties.
One of those right-wing factions, Yisrael Beiteinu, now is trying to block the religious parties from power altogether and may be trying to end Mr. Netanyahu’s career as well.
There is much talk among Netanyahu allies — many of whom are eager to succeed him — that if he fails in his second attempt to forge a governing coalition, he won’t get a third.
Mr. Gantz, for his part, has had all summer to settle on a winning strategy, hone his style on the stump, work out any differences with three strong-willed running mates and sharpen a compelling message for the roughly half of Israelis who polls show crave an end to the Netanyahu era.
He is 0-for-4.
With just three and a half weeks to go, critics say Blue and White’s strategy is indecipherable and its message a muddle, its top four candidates are garnering headlines mainly over embarrassing leaks and infighting, and Mr. Gantz himself seems averse to the spotlight. A spokeswoman said he was meeting with plenty of voters this week and next, but reporters weren’t welcome to see him in action.
“We’re confused,” said Smadar Schneidman, 61, an interior designer out for a birthday breakfast with her husband in north Tel Aviv, solid Blue and White territory. “Last time, I was a proud Blue and White voter. Now, it’s a bit of a problem. It’s as if Gantz doesn’t want to win.”
When Mr. Gantz does step out, he sometimes sets back his own cause.
Earlier this month, he seemed to open the door to his serving in a Netanyahu-led government despite earlier refusals. (He recanted, saying he had misheard the question.) Then he said that as long as he would be prime minister first, he would be open to taking turns in a rotation with Mr. Netanyahu. (This was sarcastic, he explained afterward.)
And when all of Israel was consumed with the killing by Palestinians of a 19-year-old named Dvir Sorek, Mr. Gantz gave a live television interview from the scene of the attack and blanked on the victim’s last name.
The stumbles are tarnishing Mr. Gantz’s biggest asset: His image. He captivated center-left voters with his combat experience, towering stature and steely blue eyes. But Mr. Netanyahu is hammering away, suggesting Mr. Gantz isn’t up to the job of campaigning, let alone of running the country.
“It’s a lot for him,” one of Likud’s taglines says, with crocodile tears.
Then there is the shooting inside the armored personnel carrier, as Israelis colorfully call the squabbling among Blue and White’s top standard-bearers that has repeatedly broken into view.
Blue and White’s No. 2, the former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, released a video mocking Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners as greedily demanding “all the money in Israel.” But Mr. Gantz and the party’s No. 3 candidate, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, scolded him rather than defending him against opponents who called the video anti-Semitic.
Mr. Lapid’s intent was to recapture lost market share among secular Israelis who are tired of Netanyahu’s fealty to the ultra-Orthodox. Before enlisting with Mr. Gantz, Mr. Lapid had built a strong centrist party, Yesh Atid, in part around requiring military service of religious yeshiva students who have historically been exempt.
Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, has commandeered that issue this summer, turning heads even among center-left Israelis by making himself the champion of the secular, or people “who are against having a yarmulke put on our heads by force,” as Eli Avidar, a Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker and former diplomat, put it.
Indeed, Mr. Lieberman, a Soviet-born former defense minister and foreign minister who forced the repeat elections by refusing to join the ultrareligious parties as part of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, has run a highly focused campaign against those parties’ influence over Israeli life. His gains in the polls have positioned him to be a political kingmaker.
By contrast, the Blue and White video flap showed Mr. Lapid and Mr. Gantz at cross purposes strategically: Attack the ultrareligious or not? And the Israeli media feasted this week on Mr. Gantz’s hiring of a private security firm, apparently without Mr. Lapid’s knowledge, to ferret out the sources of damaging leaks. The main result so far has been more damaging leaks.
The steady stream of distractions is dispiriting to some Blue and White voters who were hoping for a more disciplined operation.
“I think it’s very weak,” said Shelly Lixenberg, 55, of the well-to-do Bavli neighborhood in Tel Aviv. “They’re being knocked a lot with the cosmetic stuff.”
Mitigating the damage is the likelihood that relatively few voters are paying attention. August is notoriously slow, with as many as a million Israelis away. Blue and White even put up a billboard near the airport in Larnaca, Cyprus, a popular vacation spot. It says its campaign will go into overdrive on Sept. 1.
There’s also the possibility, as Mr. Gantz is calculating, that after a decade of the smooth-talking Mr. Netanyahu, he might just feel like an antidote.
“The people of Israel deserve a value-driven political culture and a needs-driven political platform,” said Melody Sucharewicz, a Gantz spokeswoman. “The party’s goal is to replace the current government, without using the current government’s destructive rhetoric.”
In interviews, some voters said Mr. Gantz reminded them of Yitzhak Rabin, who also could misspeak and appear embarrassed when facing the news media. Others said they believed Mr. Gantz’s preference for a dignified campaign was appealing, and might just work.
But many also say they feel it so urgent to unseat Mr. Netanyahu that they are behind Mr. Gantz no matter what — which could explain why Blue and White has held roughly even with Likud in the polls despite its bumpy summer.
Yael Shrem Senator, 45, said she was so taken with Mr. Lieberman’s effectiveness against Mr. Netanyahu, not to mention with his intelligence and charisma, that she organized a house party for him last week in liberal Ramat Hasharon, where Yisrael Beiteinu got only 144 votes out of 27,033 in April. More than 150 people attended.
But she said she was so fed up with Mr. Netanyahu’s divisiveness and what it was doing to Israel that she has thought about emigrating if he wins.
“Every time I open the newspaper, I want to cry,” she said.
And for that reason, Ms. Senator said, she was leaning toward voting for Mr. Gantz in the end.
“He’s too nice,” she said. “And I think he doesn’t have enough experience. But listen, we have no choice.”