Blue and White party head Benny Gantz on Wednesday turned down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenge to a televised debate ahead of the March 2 elections, dismissing it as “spin” and linking it to the premier’s upcoming corruption trial.
“Netanyahu has been avoiding debates for over a decade. He avoided my call for debates in the last rounds of elections. He remembered this event because of his court date set for March 17,” Gantz said during a press conference in Ramat Gan.
He added: “This whole event is one big media spin. I don’t work for this spin, I don’t work for Netanyahu.”
Firing back, Netanyahu called Gantz “scared” and questioned the ability of the Blue and White head, a former military chief of staff, to lead Israel.
“Gantz is scared of a debate and he knows why. Israel needs a strong leader and not a coward,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “If Gantz is scared to come to a debate against the prime minister, how will he withstand the great challenges of the State of Israel?”
Netanyahu repeated his call for Gantz to debate him.
The challenge by Netanyahu, made during an interview Tuesday with the right-wing Channel 20, marked Netanyahu’s first public sign of interest in holding a debate since returning to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009.
Gantz’s party had indicated Tuesday that it was leaning against joining a debate.
Israel has not had a debate between leading candidates for the premiership since 1996, when Netanyahu squared off with then-prime minister Shimon Peres. Netanyahu went on to win that election.
Televised election debates were a staple of Israeli elections between 1977 and 1996, but then fell out of favor with incumbents and front-runner candidates who often viewed them as an unnecessary risk.
Netanyahu, who is viewed as a gifted orator, may believe having a debate now could improve his standing in polls, which for months have forecast continued political stalemate, resulting in two failures to produce a government and three elections within a year.
Ahead of the 2015 election, Channel 12 (then called Channel 2) invited all party leaders to a debate. All agreed except for Netanyahu, who said he would “consider it” but never acquiesced.
In his remarks Wednesday, Gantz also said anyone wishing to join a government he leads must sign a policy document committing not to support a so-called French law granting immunity from prosecution to Netanyahu.
“A man suspected of bribery, deceit and breach of trust can’t serve as a prime minister,” Gantz said.
He accused Netanyahu of seeking “to demolish the institutions of the State of Israel, first among them those of law enforcement,” in a bid to avoid “being transferred from the prime minister’s chair to the defendant’s chair.”
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He has dismissed the charges as a witch hunt by law enforcement, the media and political rivals to oust him from office.
Ahead of a January deadline, Netanyahu announced he would seek parliamentary immunity, but pulled his request hours before the Knesset committee set to weigh the matter was to begin deliberations.
“After we denied him immunity, only one thing interests him: to put together a coalition that will allow him to pass a law that will outlaw putting a prime minister on trial — what he calls ‘the French law,’” Gantz said.
Therefore, Gantz continued, “I’m announcing here that anyone who wants to be part of my government will sign a guidelines document that will include a commitment to oppose any such initiative. I call on all party leaders to commit today not to lend a hand to such a bill.”
Allies of Netanyahu have previously championed proposed legislation that could shelter him from criminal charges, including a “French Law” that would grant a serving prime minister immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has publicly denied seeking to advance such legislation.