Most party leaders give final set of TV interviews

Netanyahu dodges Lapid debate call; vows he won’t try to halt his trial, fire AG

PM says opposition leader should first declare candidacy for premiership; ‘He’s scared,’ retorts Yesh Atid head

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-minister of finance Yair Lapid attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on October 7, 2014. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-minister of finance Yair Lapid attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on October 7, 2014. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shot down a suggestion on Saturday that he may be “scared” to engage in a televised debate with opposition leader Yair Lapid ahead of Israel’s national elections on Tuesday, its fourth in two years.

Lapid had challenged Netanyahu to a debate on Saturday evening and had contacted all three major networks — Kan, Channel 12 and Channel 13 — to say he was willing to hold a jointly-broadcast debate with the premier.

In a wide-ranging interview on Channel 12 Saturday with “Meet the Press” host Rina Matsliah, Netanyahu said that Lapid must first formally declare that he is running for prime minister, and denied that fear played any role in his decision not to debate him otherwise.

“Why doesn’t he say, ‘I want to [hold a] debate because I’m running against you for the premiership”’? Netanyahu asked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Channel 12 interview, March 20, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

“Our country is not a game for ambitious politicians,” the premier added.

Channel 12 aired interviews on Saturday evening with almost all the leaders of the political parties running in the upcoming election. Lapid was one of the few main party leaders who declined to be interviewed. Also absent were the Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas.

But the opposition leader and head of the Yesh Atid party, which is polling at between 18 and 19 seats, held a press conference later Saturday, charging that Netanyahu was spooked by the offer for a debate because he “knows the outcome.”

“For three months [Netanyahu] put [my face] on billboards, made videos asking ‘Where is Lapid?’ He talked about me constantly, and then I offered him a debate, and he got scared and disappeared,” Lapid said.

Workers hang an election campaign billboard for the Likud Party showing a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lower right, and opposition leader Yair Lapid, upper right, next to a billboard of the Yisrael Beitenu Party showing its leader Avigdor Liberman, in Bnei Brak, Sunday, March. 14, 2021. Israel heads into its fourth election in less than two years on March 23. Hebrew on billboard at right reads: “Next Prime Minister: Lapid or Netanyahu.” (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Lapid claimed that, in a debate, Netanyahu would have to reveal “what he is trying to hide from the public with all his might”: A coalition built by Netanyahu would be a “government of extortionists and racists who will take money from those who work and give it to those who do not work, a dark government that will hurt the economy, hurt relations with the Americans and drive our children away,” Lapid said of a Likud-led coalition that would include the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the far-right Religious Zionism faction.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at a March 20, 2021 press conference (Facebook screenshot)

Lapid had earlier said Netanyahu was seeking to build “a backwards, racist, extortionist government” that “will push away an entire generation and bury Israeli democracy.”

“We have a real opportunity — perhaps a last opportunity — to change the ruling government on Tuesday and bring about a big change. If enough people leave the house [to vote], we will reach 61 seats and form a sane government,” said Lapid.

The latest polls have shown Netanyahu with momentum on the final stretch of the election campaign, rising from some 28 seats to 30-32 and on the cusp of a threadbare majority, even as he faces an ongoing trial on corruption charges. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Speaking to Channel 12 on Saturday, Netanyahu said that he flatly opposes a proposal to halt the trial and claimed the charges against him were “fabricated” and will collapse.

“I’m against canceling my trial. First of all, you don’t stop a trial. Second, these fabricated charges are collapsing before our eyes,” Netanyahu said.

“I will stand trial. I will win at this trial. And the most interesting trial is the trial before the public [in these elections]. The public will now decide, not the prosecutors…,” he added.

Netanyahu was similarly explicit in a Channel 13 interview, saying of an initiative supported by several right-wing politicians to advance legislation to try to halt the trial: “I rule it out. It will not happen. Nobody stops a trial.”

In his Channel 12 interview, he then proceeded to lash out at the network over a feature on the TV screen asking if viewers were persuaded by the various party leaders’ interviews.

“You should be embarrassed by this app on the screens,” he said. “You control it… Do you think people believe you? You have been recruited as a political party. This studio is working against me politically from start to finish…”

The premier also denied plans to fire Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who indicted him in the corruption cases.

“I won’t fire Mandeblit. But I will ensure a balance between the [judiciary and the legislature and executive],” he explained.

“The power of the judiciary is out of balance. Take the decision now to open the skies,” he said in a reference to the High Court decision last week to reopen Ben Gurion Airport to all Israelis who want to come home ahead of the elections. “This decision is wrong since it risks bringing COVID-19 variants into Israel,” but he is powerless to overrule it, he said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

Speaking briefly on US-Israeli ties under the new administration of US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu said he will only go through with annexing parts of the West Bank if the president backs the move, a remote prospect under Biden.

Netanyahu pledged last year to annex West Bank lands slated for Israel under then-president Donald Trump’s peace proposal, but agreed to drop the plan last summer as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Netanyahu vs. Lapid?

For weeks, Netanyahu has been seeking to portray the elections as being between him and Lapid, in an attempt to minimize the threat posed by fellow right-wingers Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, both of whom have expressed willingness to form a coalition with center-left parties that excludes the premier’s Likud party. Netanyahu has accused Sa’ar and Bennett of planning to join Lapid after the election in a “left-wing” government.

“Vote for Likud, you get Bennett as a respectable minister in my government. Vote for Bennett, you get him as a minister in Lapid’s government,” Netanyahu claimed Tuesday during a campaign event in Givat Shmuel, a statement he repeated on Saturday during his Channel 12 interview.

Sa’ar has ruled out joining a coalition led by Netanyahu, while Bennett, who has been sharply critical of the premier, has not done so. Sa’ar and Bennett have both pledged to not join a coalition led by Lapid.

A campaign poster for Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party in Tel Aviv prior to the Israeli general election, on March 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu predicted Saturday that together with Bennett’s Yamina party, his right-wing religious bloc would pick up at least 61 seats, enough for a majority in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, Sa’ar downplayed his right-wing party’s continued slide in the polls and said his “mission” was to prevent Netanyahu from securing a majority in Tuesday’s elections.

He insisted to Channel 12 Saturday that he was “running until the end” to be prime minister despite recent polls showing New Hope hovering around 10 seats.

Sa’ar ruled out a coalition with the Joint List, saying he opposed governments that rely on “extremist elements,” and called on Bennett to declare he won’t join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

He also asserted that Lapid was “unable to form a government.”

“We’ll all need to comprise” to form a government without Netanyahu, added Sa’ar, a former Likud minister.

In his interview Saturday, Bennett predicted that he and Sa’ar would serve together in a government after the elections, but then went on to call him, Netanyahu and Lapid a “band of cynics” who will lead to a fifth round of elections.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett takes a self-photograph with supporters in the southern city of Sderot, on March 17, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Bennett said his guiding “principles” after the elections would be preventing another round of elections and preventing the formation of a left-wing government.

Merav Michaeli of the center-left Labor party, meanwhile, said she’ll “make every effort” to replace Netanyahu as prime minister. She refused to rule out sitting in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties, after the head of the left-wing Meretz party asked why she was willing to be part of such a coalition.

“We don’t boycott any community,” she says.

Leader of the Labor Party Merav Michaeli speaks during a photo session at the party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2021 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Both Labor and Meretz have said they will back Lapid for the premiership, but Michaeli on Saturday wouldn’t commit to doing so, saying Labor will back whoever is able to put together a majority coalition to replace Netanyahu.

Speaking after Michaeli, Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party said he’ll back his former ally Lapid if the opposition leader is able to form a government.

Gantz’s party is currently polling at four seats and may not pass the electoral threshold.

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