Netanyahu rejects Lapid debate challenge

Netanyahu said in TV interviews with Channels 12 and 13 that he would only accept the request if Lapid formally declared himself a candidate for prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned down a debate invitation from opposition leader Yair Lapid on Saturday night after Lapid refused Netanyahu’s condition of formally declaring himself a candidate for prime minister.
Lapid told Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz in an interview last week that he is ready to be prime minister. Netanyahu immediately tweeted that he saw the statement as proof that this election is between him and Lapid. But Lapid later insisted that he had not declared his candidacy.
“The fact that I am ready and that Yesh Atid is ready to run the country is a fact,” Lapid said in an answer to a question from the Post at a press conference on Saturday night.
“But the issue is not our running,” he said. “We are not saying yes, we are running, or no, we are not running. We are saying what is good for the country, what is good for our children and that we will replace Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu said in TV interviews with Channels 12 and 13 that such statements were not good enough.
“I am not going to debate him if he is only a candidate for chairman of a committee in the Knesset,” Netanyahu told Channel 13. “There is a reason he is not making that declaration. Lapid is hiding. If he announces that, there will be a debate.”
In a message aimed at Lapid and fellow prime ministerial candidates Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu said: “Our state is not a game for politicians with ambitions to play with.”
At the press conference on Saturday night, Lapid said: “I heard all the excuses of Netanyahu why he fled from the debate that I offered him. He is scared. For three months he put me on billboards, posted clips about where Lapid is and spoke about me nonstop and then I offered to debate him. He got scared and disappeared. It is not too late. The offer to debate is still on the table.”
In a video message earlier, Lapid said to Netanyahu: “Come to a debate, Bibi. I’m not going to sit in the studios as your warm-up act. You said I’m your opponent, come to a debate. You asked ‘Where’s Lapid?’ Here I am.”
“The Israeli public deserves a debate, they deserve answers,” Lapid said. “The Israeli public deserves to know what kind of government you want to build here. The studios are ready, the moderators are ready, there are two podiums waiting. For months you’ve put me on your billboards, talked about me in your speeches and made videos attacking me. Let’s see if you’re serious. Let’s see if you really want a debate or you’re going to run away.”
Lapid said a debate will put on the table what is at stake in the election and the kind of government Netanyahu wants to form.
“[Netanyahu wants] a racist, extortionist, misogynistic government that will drive a whole generation away and bury Israel’s democracy. Israel will be far more religious, far poorer and far less democratic,” Lapid charged. “It will no longer be the country of working people, those who serve in the army, those who pay taxes. They’ll have a government that hates them and everything they believe in.”
Lapid canceled interviews on Saturday night with Channels 12 and 13, which hosted Netanyahu and the leaders of several parties. In their interviews, Sa’ar and Bennett said they should be included if any debate took place.
On Friday, Netanyahu intended to visit Bennett’s home in Ra’anana – along with a neighbor of Bennett who supports Netanyahu’s reelection – to deliver a message about The Yamina leader needing to join only a government led by him. Bennett responded by challenging Netanyahu to debate him.
Bennett made the challenge after it became apparent that Netanyahu intended to visit his home in Ra’anana to deliver a loyalty oath to the Right.
“I won’t sign anything, because I don’t work for Netanyahu,” Bennett said. “But he is invited to debate me. Tell me any time.”
When Bennett saw Sa’ar at Channel 12’s TV studio, he said: “We will of course be in a coalition together.”
Sa’ar vowed to continue fighting despite dropping poll numbers.
“I refuse to react to polls as if they’re the final results,” Sa’ar said, adding that Lapid cannot form a government and doesn’t know how to.
Efforts of Blue and White to cross the electoral threshold received a boost over the weekend when Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi endorsed the party and said he would vote for it. Ashkenazi, who is not running for reelection, had not spoken about the election until now.
New Hope received endorsements over the weekend from former Likud ministers Limor Livnat and Michael Eitan.
Cody Levine contributed to this report.