TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday challenged his main political rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, to a rare election debate ahead of the March 2 elections.
The last time Netanyahu went head-to-head with a political opponent was in a 1996 televised debate with then-prime minister Shimon Peres. Netanyahu subsequently won the election.
“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,” Netanyahu said during an interview with Channel 20 Tuesday.
“We’ll have a televised debate, we’ll talk to the public, without teleprompters… and say things as they are,” Netanyahu said in remarks translated by The Times of Israel.
Gantz responded by saying the move was nothing more than “spin” ahead of Netanyahu’s trial, set to begin March 17.
“What happened, Netanyahu?” he wrote on Twitter. “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.”
Days earlier, Gantz said “I’m ready for anything” in response to a question about whether he would debate Netanyahu.
“I believe Netanyahu’s next serious debate will be with prosecution witnesses in his trial,” he told Channel 12.
On Tuesday, a Blue and White spokesperson declined to respond directly to Netanyahu’s challenge, saying only the party was “not dealing with this on the day that [Netanyahu] is ‘called to court.’”
However, Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman welcomed a chance to debate the prime minister.
“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, who is again being seen as kingmaker.
The majority of polls show Blue and White and Likud in a close race, with Gantz’s party having a slight edge – likely to result in yet another deadlock.