Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu intends to challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor chairman Amir Peretz to a televised debate. He is to issue the challenge in a speech to the Likud central committee on Monday evening at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
A spokesman for Netanyahu said a debate was necessary because Sharon has thus far gotten away with being vague on key issues such as where he intends to draw the border in Judea and Samaria between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
During the Likud primary, Netanyahu rejected repeated requests for a debate from the four candidates running against him. But Netanyahu's spokesman said that a debate in the Likud would have been divisive and harmed the party, whereas now it was essential for the public to know what each candidate stands for.
Peretz agreed to a debate, saying, "It would force Sharon to give answers to a million sick people without medicine, a million poor workers and a million children and senior citizens below the poverty line."
Sharon's associates, however, rejected Netanyahu's request, saying that debates were traditionally held between serious candidates for prime minister and not with the leaders of small parties. "Netanyahu can put on a show by himself," a Sharon associate said. "Bibi is the national stand-up performer and everything he does is a show. Sharon will say what he has to say the way he always does without giving in to Bibi's tricks."
Sharon's associates added that people who are about to lose elections always ask for a debate in desperation. They said that because Netanyahu as the front-runner in the Likud race would not agree to a debate, they saw no reason for Sharon as national front-runner to do so.
Netanyahu also came under fire from ministers in his party, who were upset to read on the Internet that he had made the decision, without consulting them, to quit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition immediately after Monday's central committee meeting.
The ministers accused Netanyahu of returning to his bad habit of deciding important matters alone, a trait that was harshly criticized when he was prime minister. They said that Netanyahu also decided unilaterally to offer Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom the second slot on the Likud list and to declare war against Likud activist Moshe Feiglin.
Netanyahu's spokesman responded that the Likud chairman had not yet decided when to remove the ministers from the government, and he would not make a decision until after completing a series of one-on-one meetings with Likud MKs on Wednesday. He said that the fact that Netanyahu was meeting every Likud MK was proof that he had become better at consulting with the party's leadership and not making decisions unilaterally.
The central committee will vote on Monday on the proposal to reserve the second slot for Shalom and to delay the election for the Likud's Knesset slate from January 3 to January 12. Netanyahu and Shalom will be the only speakers at the event.
Meanwhile, in Kadima, a meeting between Sharon and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter that was expected to happen as early as Saturday has been pushed off until Wednesday.