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Netanyahu says he’ll debate Lapid if the two can agree on moderator

PM responds to opposition leader’s challenge as he tries to frame election as contest between himself and Yesh Atid; polls predict deadlock after next week’s vote

Workers hang an election campaign billboard for the Likud Party showing a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lower right, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid, upper right, next to a billboard of the Yisrael Beitenu Party showing its leader Avigdor Lieberman, in Bnei Brak, Sunday, March. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Workers hang an election campaign billboard for the Likud Party showing a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lower right, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid, upper right, next to a billboard of the Yisrael Beitenu Party showing its leader Avigdor Lieberman, in Bnei Brak, Sunday, March. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he will agree to a pre-election political debate with opposition leader Yair Lapid, if the two can agree on a moderator.

“I’m ready to tell him very simply, ‘Come now, let’s agree on a moderator and let’s debate,’” Netanyahu said in an interview at a conference organized by right-wing Channel 20.

He suggested that journalist Erel Segal, who was conducting the interview, be the moderator.

Pre-election debates by prime ministerial candidates were once a regular occurrence in Israel but have not taken place in decades.

Netanyahu has refused repeated calls to debate his rivals ahead of elections.

Israelis go to the polls on March 23 for the fourth time in two years.

Polls generally show Netanyahu’s Likud party doing no better than the previous three elections and predict political deadlock after the upcoming vote. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is forecast to be the second-largest party in the 120-seat Knesset, with around 20 seats, trailing Likud, which is predicted to win around 28 seats.

Head of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid, speaks during an interview at the ‘Influencers Conference’ of Channel 12 news in Jerusalem, on March 7, 2021 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

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 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.

Bennett has not ruled out sitting with Likud in a coalition, while Sa’ar has vowed not to partner with Netanyahu’s party. Sa’ar and Bennett have pledged to not join a coalition led by Lapid, who has refrained from declaring himself a candidate for prime minister. The left-wing Labor and Meretz parties have said they will back Lapid for the premiership.

In an apparent change of strategy, Lapid last week 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.”

Related: Will you shut up, man: Whatever became of TV debates ahead of Israeli elections?

Netanyahu responded that he would debate Lapid if the Yesh Atid leader acknowledged he was running for prime minister.

During an interview with Army Radio, Netanyahu said that he was “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 also tweeted after the interview to say he was 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.”

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)

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

New Hope, a right-wing party Sa’ar founded last year, 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 over 24 years. The last time was in 1996 between Netanyahu and then-prime minister Shimon Peres. Netanyahu went on to win that election.

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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