This isn’t up for debate: 8 things to know for February 19
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Israel media review

This isn’t up for debate: 8 things to know for February 19

Netanyahu challenges Gantz to a televised verbal spar, with analysts concluding that it’s because the Likud premier has nothing to lose, unlike Blue and White’s chairman

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

A composite photo showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A composite photo showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadas Parush/Flash90)

1. That’s debatable: Political junkies are abuzz after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu challenged Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz to a debate with less than two weeks left until the election and polls continuously predicting the challenger’s party edging the incumbent in a still-deadlocked result.

  • Netanyahu has not accepted such a challenge against a leading candidate for prime minister since 1996. Then he mopped the floor with Shimon Peres before going on to win that year’s election. But Channel 13 points out that the man known for his television prowess laid an egg in 1999 when he went toe to toe with Centrist Party head Yitzhak Mordechai in a debate that then Labor chairman Ehud Barak chose to boycott.
  • The news outlet interviews advisers for both Netanyahu and Mordechai, who describe how while Netanyahu had come prepared to debate the empty chair that was for Barak, Mordechai arrived “with hate in his eyes” to square off against Netanyahu. Mordechai famously told Netanyahu to “look him in the eyes,” accusing him of lying regarding his position on Lebanon, in what former Prime Minister’s Office adviser Aviv Buchinsky called a “knockout punch.
  • Back in the current era, both Channel 12 and 13 welcome the ratings blessing that a debate would offer, sending personal invitations to the candidates to go up against one another on their respective platforms.
  • However, Gantz seems less interested in the idea, telling Channel 12 that Netanyahu first needs to worry about debating the prosecutors who will be cross-examining him once his trial begins on March 17, just two weeks after the upcoming election.

2. The great non-debaters: With no debate set, pundits have little else to do other than speculate as to why that is the case.

  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal summarizes the story as follows: On the one hand, Gantz would have to be crazy in order to head onto the debate stage of his own volition, given that Netanyahu is far more skilled and experienced in this arena. On the other hand, debates are about expectations. If Gantz is able to give even an okay performance against the polished Netanyahu, it could be seen as a victory.
  • Segal’s colleague Ofer Hadad argues that while Gantz faces a catch-22, rejecting the offer from Netanyahu could be seen as projecting fear.
  • Another Channel 12 reporter, Daphna Liel, explains that the reason that Gantz has rejected the offer at the moment is because the circumstances have flipped since the last two elections. Now, Gantz has much more to lose than Netanyahu, who has tried everything until now, but has twice come up short to Blue and White.
  • Zman Yisrael’s Avner Hofstein writes that regardless of whether Gantz has anything to gain from agreeing to Netanyahu’s offer, it is his democratic duty to participate in a debate in order to present his platform to Israeli voters.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yuval Karni concludes that there will be no debate, but says that the big question will be how much longer the topic will remain in the news cycle during a rather lackluster campaign.
  • Feeling left out, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman chimes in on Twitter that he’d also like to debate Netanyahu and is willing to let the Likud leader pick the time and place. The post leads to mockery from Netanyahu’s spokesman, who compares Liberman to those “irrelevant” people who squeeze their way into your selfie. (Apparently that’s a thing.) Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich quips that he’s happy to send his party’s No. 16 candidate to debate Liberman.
  • Summarizing the saga, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes that while talk of a debate and who is avoiding whom is something that might interest news junkies, unless such a spar actually takes place the vast majority of the public couldn’t care less.

3. Carrots and sticks: After three days without a rocket fired at Israel, the government has announced that it’ll expand Gaza’s fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and increase the number of travel permits from the Strip to 2,000, leading critics of tough-talking Defense Minister Naftali Bennett to accuse him of giving a “prize to terrorists.”

  • Responding to the criticism, Bennett’s Yamina sidekick Ayelet Shaked tells Army Radio that the lifting of the sanctions is actually helping Israel by providing it with much-needed workers while also improving the humanitarian conditions in Gaza. However, she maintains that in order to put an end to the terror once and for all from Gaza, a widespread military operation will be required.
  • Yedioth’s Yossi Yehoshua writes that Israel should be using the leverage it has in order to raise the issue of the bodies of two IDF soldiers along with two civilians that are still being held captive by Hamas in Gaza.
  • The brother of Hadar Goldin, one of those soldiers, tweets out his frustration, saying that he’d received numerous automated messages from Netanyahu telling him to vote Likud come March 2, but nothing regarding his family’s demand to bring Hadar home.
  • While the lifting of the sanctions appears to indicate that Israel is inching toward the elusive long-term ceasefire deal with Hamas, Yedioth’s Shimrit Meir points out that as long as Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is too scared to be seen in broad daylight for fear that Israel might assassinate him, a deal with the terror group is not as close as some are saying.

4. Support me in droves: Back to election (low-grade) fever, Netanyahu went on the Arabic Hala TV channel in an apparent effort to patch up relations with Arab Israelis.

  • While Haaretz reported earlier this month that the idea entertained by the Trump peace plan of “transferring” the Arab communities in the so-called Triangle to the future state of Palestine had been Netanyahu’s idea, the premier tells Hala that the line in the White House proposal meant nothing and that he would absolutely not allow for such a scenario to take place.
  • Asked about his ties to the Arab sector in Israel, Netanyahu tells the outlet that the doctors who took care of his parents and in-laws were Arab, and once when a young Arab girl told him that she wanted to be a doctor, he responded by telling her that she can do anything in Israel that she sets her mind to.
  • “With me as prime minister of Israel, the sky is the limit for what we can do together,” Netanyahu concludes in a plea for Arab Israelis to come out in droves for Likud on election day.
  • Yedioth’s Meir argues that if Netanyahu were to spend more time boasting of the millions of shekels his government transferred to the Arab sector instead of scaring the broader public about the possibility of a Gantz government propped up by Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi or any other Arab lawmaker, he could well manage to pick up an extra seat or two from Arab voters.
  • Channel 12’s Segal compares Netanyahu’s latest effort to reach out to the Arab sector to that of US President Donald Trump, who has boasted of having lowered black unemployment in an effort to woo minority voters who may have been incensed by his fear-mongering campaign style.

5. From quarantine to quarantine: Both major dailies, Israel Hayom and Yedioth Ahronoth, reserve their front pages for continued coverage of corona as Jerusalem prepares to welcome the two Israeli passengers who contracted the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

  • Yedioth features the dozen nurses and doctors who volunteered to treat the patients, who will be quarantined upon arrival at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
  • “Whoever is not scared is not human, but someone needs to do this work,” Orna Tzruya, one of the nurses, tells Yedioth. The paper also interviews employees of Israel Railways who are furious over how passengers returning from the Far East have been allowed to take the train in order to get to the hospitals where they are being quarantined.
  • Israel Hayom interviews Shalva Dahan, one of the ten Diamond Princess passengers who has not contracted the virus and who is slated to be returned home on Thursday. “We won’t celebrate until we’ve returned home to Israel,” she says, in a quote that is plastered across the front page.
  • The paper points out that while they’ll be leaving the quarantine conditions on the ship, the 12 Israeli passengers will be ushered right back into quarantine after they land at Ben Gurion Airport.

6. For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt: Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked posts a video standing next to farmers in the south, vowing to work to cancel the law that requires Israelis to provide a pension to foreign workers who make up a large chunk of the employees on Israeli farms. The clip immediately evokes vitriol from dozens of Twitter users, primarily on the left.

  • “For the 18,734th time, she’s forgotten what it means to be a Jew,” former Israel Democratic Party candidate Yaya Fink tweets, playing off the 1997 hot-mic scandal involving Netanyahu who denigrated leftists in the ear of Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri.
  • Shalom Hartman Institute scholar Tomer Persico highlights the 36 times  that the importance of respecting the stranger is mentioned in the Bible.
  • Haaretz’s Josh Breiner mocks that it’s worth taking Shaked’s comments a step further. “They should work seven days a week. And you know what? Don’t give them lunch breaks either. Or water. They can drink from the irrigation pipes.”
  • Because it wouldn’t be a Wednesday without a Holocaust comparison in Israel, Breiner’s colleague Chaim Levinson tweets that Shaked is employing the same logic used by countries to discriminate against Jews leading up to World War II.
  • Maariv’s Avishai Grinzaig dismisses Levinson’s comparison and argues that what Shaked proposed is no different from when the Histadrut Labor Federation calls on Israelis to purchase products made in Israel.
  • Recognizing that her pledge angered quite a few people, Shaked releases a statement standing by her initial video. “They [leftists] prefer that our farmers
    and restaurateurs will go bankrupt so long as their enlightened consciences won’t be battered. Nobody is forcing foreign workers to come work here under fair conditions. You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m able to sleep well at night knowing that I’m working to help Israeli farmers and their families who are crippled by this burden [of providing pensions for foreign workers].

7. Problems Down Under? President Reuven Rivlin is on his way to his first official visit to Australia, where he will meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison as well as other senior political figures. But Ynet reports that Israeli officials are concerned that the festive affair might be marred by protesters from the Jewish community who, along with their government, have lost patience over Israel’s apparent foot-dragging with alleged pedophile Malka Leifer’s extradition.

  • The news site cites “senior officials in the Australian Jewish community” who described the rupture in relations as “severe” due to Israel’s conduct in the Leifer case.
  • The Ynet report came hours after Jerusalem District Court judge Chana Lomp granted the request of Leifer’s attorneys to submit medical opinions contradicting the conclusions of a psychiatric panel that had found the alleged sex abuser mentally fit for extradition to Australia.
  • The decision to allow psychiatrists Moshe Kotler and Sam Tiano, who testified last year that Leifer suffers from severe mental illness and is therefore not fit for extradition, to submit their opinions will almost certainly force the prosecution to cross-examine the two doctors, further extending the already nearly six-year-long proceedings, a legal official tells The Times of Israel.
  • Leifer’s alleged victims have responded with outrage to Lomp’s decision. “We have been patient. We have been calm. We have tried to trust the Israeli court system, understand this takes time. But when we go backwards, repeat a process already endlessly delayed we have had enough!” sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elie Sapper write in a joint statement.
  • Army Radio reports that Erlich has been trying to schedule a meeting with Rivlin while the president is in Australia, but that the president’s office has yet to respond to her request.
  • Despite rumors of protests, Australia is doing its best to keep things business as usual. Its ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan tweets, “Looking forward to joining @PresidentRuvi Rivlin in Australia later this week for his State visit down under. You will be warmly welcomed Your Excellency!”

8. Accidental theft: What appeared to have most upset lawmakers and journalists alike this morning was the midnight police search of Yehudah Glick’s home after the former Likud MK was arrested on the Temple Mount.

  • Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweets that Israel Police needed a reality check and fast after their “obsessive tirade” against a former lawmaker. The right-wing MK calls for the police officers who carried out the search to be fired.
  • While Glick and his supporters have asserted that he was arrested yesterday for simply “walking too slowly” while visiting the flashpoint holy site. Police have told several news outlets that in fact, the former MK went back up on the Temple Mount after leaving the compound with a pair US congressmen and refused to listen to directives from officers as he provocatively walked in sensitive areas where Muslim worshipers were congregating.
  • And while Glick claims that the search was a form of harassment, police commander Haim Shmuli tells Army Radio that he has footage of Glick stealing sensitive documents relating to his investigation when he left the police station after his interrogation.
  • Responding to the claim on the Kan public broadcaster, Glick accuses police of blowing a small “mistake” out of proportion. “I did not steal anything and I did not try to disappear evidence… It’s possible that by accident some papers that weren’t supposed to be taken were taken.”
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