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Netanyahu agrees to debate Lapid only if he ‘admits he is running for PM’

Opposition leader challenged premier on Sunday; New Hope leader Sa’ar also offers a debate invitation

Composite photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Ramla on August 4, 2020, and Yair Lapid at the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90, Knesset/Adina Veldman)
Composite photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Ramla on August 4, 2020, and Yair Lapid at the Knesset on May 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90, Knesset/Adina Veldman)

With just two weeks until election day and polls showing Likud and its allies doing no better than during the three previous rounds of voting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that he could agree to a televised debate with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, following a challenge by the latter issued Sunday.

During an interview with Army Radio, Netanyahu said that he is “certainly prepared to consider a debate with Yair Lapid, the moment he decides to stop hiding behind [Naftali] Bennett and Gideon [Sa’ar] and tell the truth — he is running for prime minister.”

Netanyahu has been seeking for weeks to portray the elections as being between him and Lapid, in an attempt to minimize the threat posed by fellow right-wingers Sa’ar and Bennett, both of whom have expressed willingness to form a coalition with center-left parties that excludes the premier’s Likud party.

In an apparent change of strategy, Lapid on Sunday challenged the premier to a debate, in an interview with Channel 12 News.

“I am interested in a debate with Netanyahu,” he said, adding that it is “more important that Netanyahu ends his term than I become prime minister.”

A large billboard with a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 22 , 2021. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

Netanyahu also tweeted after his Tuesday interview to say he is definitely considering a debate, adding that “as we emerge from the coronavirus and must restore our economy, we need to decide who will be the next prime minister — Lapid or me. Lapid, the worst finance minister in Israel’s history, or me, who saved Israel from two economic crises. You decide.”

In response, former Netanyahu ally Gideon Sa’ar issued his own invitation: “Don’t hide behind Lapid, what are you afraid of? Come to a debate.”

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party speaks during a Channel 12 News conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

New Hope, a right-wing party Sa’ar recently founded, is made up mostly of former Netanyahu allies who seek to unseat the longtime prime minister in the March 23 vote.

Ahead of the March 2020 elections, Netanyahu had also challenged his main rival at the time, Benny Gantz, to a debate, which ultimately never materialized.

Such a debate, if it were to take place, would be the first between two leading candidates for Israel’s premiership in 24 years. The last time was in 1996 between Netanyahu and then-prime minister Shimon Peres. Netanyahu went on to win that election.

A poll released Monday by Channel 12 showed centrist Yesh Atid slowly closing the gap between it and the Likud party, with 20 and 28 seats predicted respectively, yet all recent surveys continued to predict a political deadlock.

The election — the fourth in two years — was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule, given his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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