With less than two weeks until election day and polls showing Likud and its allies doing no better than during the last round of voting in September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday challenged his opponent, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, to an election debate.
It was Netanyahu’s first sign of interest in holding a debate since taking office for the second time in 2009. 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.
During an interview with the right-wing Channel 20 on Tuesday, Netanyahu said, “I have an offer, one [Gantz] might not be able to refuse. I am willing to come here, or somewhere else — I invite you to a televised debate.”
“We’ll have a televised debate, we’ll talk to the public, without teleprompters… and say things as they are,” Netanyahu said.
Gantz mocked the offer on Twitter as “spin” linked to Netanyahu’s looming corruption trial, which is set to begin March 17.
“What happened, Netanyahu?” he wrote. “You got spooked that there’s now a date for your cross-examination [also ‘confrontation’ in Hebrew] of prosecution witnesses in your trial, so you’re pushing this spin? On March 17 you’re going on trial, but the state of Israel has to move on.”
The comments echoed Gantz’s answer on Saturday when he was asked about a possible debate in an interview with Channel 12. “I’m ready for anything,” he answered, adding, “I believe Netanyahu’s next serious debate will be with prosecution witnesses in his trial.”
Asked if Gantz would accept Netanyahu’s invitation for a debate, a Blue and White spokesperson said Tuesday night that the party was “not dealing with this on the day that [Netanyahu] is ‘called to court.’”
Netanyahu’s offer found a more positive response from MK Avigdor Liberman, who welcomed the turnaround.
“Bibi, I was happy to hear that you’re finally willing to hold a debate. I challenge you to debate me — at the place and time of your choosing,” wrote Liberman, whose right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party continues to hold the key to a future Netanyahu coalition, according to recent polls.
Netanyahu may believe a debate will improve his standing in polls. He is widely viewed as a gifted public speaker. Gantz, a former army chief of staff, is less experienced in public speaking.
PM @netanyahu challenges @gantzbe to live TV debate in what Blue and White sources say is a ploy to distract from his trial. Netanyahu, based on the advice that the frontrunner can only lose from a debate, has never felt he needed one against Gantz. He seems to now pic.twitter.com/uXvHMfGpcM
— Raoul Wootliff (@RaoulWootliff) February 18, 2020
Televised election debates were a staple of Israeli elections between 1977 and 1996, but fell out of favor with incumbents and front-runner candidates who often viewed them as an unnecessary risk.
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.
Still, an impromptu debate was eventually held between front-runners Netanyahu and Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog for several minutes during successive interviews with Channel 12, with Herzog in the studio and Netanyahu on a large screen behind him. Herzog infamously fumbled and said he would “keep Netanyahu united,” while intending to say “Jerusalem,” leading to much ridicule.
A poll released Monday showed centrist Blue and White increasing its edge over Netanyahu’s Likud, while another survey showed the gap between the two largest parties closing. Both polls predicted continued deadlock, which has resulted in two failures to yield a government and three elections within a year.
The Channel 13 poll, carried out by Prof. Camil Fuchs and published two weeks before the March 2 vote, showed Blue and White winning 36 Knesset seats, while Likud would come second with 33. The Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties was shown to get 14, the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz 8, while the right-wing Yamina and ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties were predicted to pick up seven seats apiece.
The overall bloc of religious and right-wing parties supporting Netanyahu was projected to get 54 of the 120 Knesset seats, while the center-left bloc led by Gantz had 58 — including the mainly Arab Joint List, which said it won’t support a Gantz government. Kingmaker Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party scored 8 seats in the television survey, enough to push either side above the necessary 61 seats.
A separate poll published Monday by the Walla news site similarly predicted a continued impasse, with the right-wing religious block at 56 seats — 33 for Likud, 8 each for Shas and UTJ, and 7 for Yamina — and the center-left bloc at 44 — Blue and White with 34 and Labor-Gesher-Meretz with 10 — with Yisrael Beytenu at 7 and the Joint List at 13.
Two previous votes in April and September failed to break the political deadlock between the blocs led by Netanyahu and Gantz. Attempts by both the Likud leader and Blue and White chairman to form a unity government of the two largest parties have also failed.
On Sunday, right-wing and religious parties renewed their pledge to back Netanyahu as prime minister, leading to fears that the coming vote will also not end the political stalemate.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.