TEL AVIV — Benny Gantz has packed a full political career into a single tumultuous year. A political neophyte when he jumped into Israel's electoral dogfight in late 2018, he has battled the country's longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to a stalemate over the course of two elections.

Now, as the sides slug their way to a third election in less than a year on March 2, political observers say the nonstop campaign has made the former army general an even more formidable opponent.

“Sometimes growing so fast makes it challenging, but I wake up every morning very happy with what I am doing because I am serving the cause that I set out to do when I joined politics,” Gantz said in a rare interview.

A sense of optimism infuses his headquarters, a three-floor operation filled with Tel Aviv hipsters, spare Ikea furniture and playpens for three babies born to staff members since the campaign began. Even after two general elections failed to produce a clear winner and the Israeli public grew increasingly apathetic, those working for Gantz’s Blue and White party appear energized.

That could reflect the fact that the party has an edge in the polls, which put Blue and White ahead of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party in the final weeks. That appears to continue an upward trend since the first election last April, when, as a newly formed party, Blue and White came in a close second behind Likud. By September, it had pulled ahead by some 40,000 votes.

Party staffers also say their calm confidence comes from Gantz himself, an imposing but soft-spoken former army chief of staff — who received reporters Thursday as he relaxed in an armchair wearing a black sweater, black jeans and black boots.

“We are like a start-up, adding in other companies very quickly,” said Gantz, reflecting on the process of bringing other parties under the Blue and White umbrella. “We scaled up very fast, which was a challenge.”

Although he was unable to unseat Netanyahu in the previous elections — in part because of Israel’s coalition-based parliamentary system — Gantz is now widely viewed as a viable successor to the longtime prime minister.

“Blue and White are definitely improving,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist at Haaretz newspaper and author of “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“There is less factionalism in the party, and the [leadership] is working well,” Pfeffer said. “This is their third election campaign, and the last 12 months of campaigning has knitted them all closer together.”

“Bibi has also helped sharpen their agenda by being so relentless,” said Pfeffer, using Netanyahu’s nickname and citing his frequent attacks on political and legal opponents. “They now make very clear that they are about one thing: getting rid of Bibi.”

The party’s overriding message is that Israel should come before all else — before ideology, religion and individual needs. It is a dig at Netanyahu, who has been indicted in three criminal cases involving allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Gantz has said that his party and Likud could have formed a unity government if the prime minister had stepped aside.

On the campaign trail, Gantz has called for mending the rifts in Israeli society and in the interview for ensuring that the country is “Jewish, democratic, well-secured, economically prosperous and morally right.”

“As a Jewish people, we must combine strength with morality,” Gantz said in the interview. “Especially in the Middle East, if you have morality without strength, then you will end up being kicked. If you have strength without morality, then you enter very dangerous areas of extremism.”

During a year of campaigning, he has become the target of frequent attacks by his opponents, who mocked his unpolished early television interviews and called him soft.

“There is no prize without a price,” he said, brushing aside the attacks. He has largely refrained from hitting back.

His muted tone, in a political environment where jeering insults are the norm, has drawn criticism. Many see Gantz as too deferential, too passive to take on Israel’s many troubles.

Michael Biton, a Blue and White member of parliament, acknowledged the trials Israel faces, including security threats, economic inequality and social tensions, but said Gantz’s growth during the campaign shows he is ready to take them on.

“He has built the best team possible to respond to Israel’s security challenges and proven that he knows how to connect people,” Biton said. “That is the most important skill of a prime minister.”

Yair Lapid, a former journalist and senior figure in Blue and White, said the rigors of a long campaign have made Gantz a more mature candidate. “Three campaigns in a row are difficult circumstances,” Lapid said. “This has never happened before in this democracy.”

Gantz appears to have grown savvier over the past year.

Two weeks ago, Vice President Pence invited Gantz to the White House for the unveiling of President Trump’s long-anticipated peace plan and said it had been Netanyahu’s suggestion that his rival attend. Many political observers saw it as a trap that would showcase Netanyahu’s diplomatic prowess and highlight Gantz’s lack of experience on the international stage. After days of media speculation that he would turn down Trump’s invitation, Gantz surprised his rivals and analysts by announcing he had secured a separate meeting with the president. He would be briefed on the plan one day ahead of Netanyahu.

His meeting with Trump lasted half an hour longer than scheduled, and Gantz was happy with his initial visit to the White House.

Gantz says he generally supports the White House plan, which was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. He has said it reflects fundamental security principles laid out in his party’s platform and, in his opinion, offers a basis for a future Middle East accord based on reality on the ground.

“I think what makes the peace plan so unique and important is that it looks at the conflict from a reality-based perspective and not from an illusionary perspective,” Gantz said. “It is very practical, talking about what can be done.”

He said he believes that both Israelis and Palestinians need new leadership and dismisses comments by some Palestinians that he is no different than Netanyahu.

Some of Netanyahu’s right-wing allies have pushed for the immediate annexation of parts of the West Bank that Trump’s plan says should remain under Israeli sovereignty. But Gantz has made clear that such steps must wait — at least until after the March 2 vote.

“I think we all need to strategically digest the plan, discuss it, think about it, but first finish with this election,” he said. “Once I will have established a government, I’ll make it a priority to promote this plan.”