For the first time in 14 years Benjamin Netanyahu, who is behind in the polls, is prepared to hold a televised debate.
With a week and a half left until the Knesset election, the gap between Likud and Blue & White is holding, and in some polls even growing slightly.
Mr Netanyahu issued the challenge on Tuesday evening in an interview on the right-wing Channel 20: “I’m prepared to come here [or] another place.”
Addressing Blue & White leader Benny Gantz, he said: “Let’s choose a moderator, or you bring someone and we’ll hold a televised debate, without a teleprompter and say the real things.
“Welcome. We’ll do a few debates, one on security, on diplomacy, on the economy.”
At this point, it does not seem that any debate will take place. Mr Gantz turned him down, saying on Wednesday that the prime minister “remembered [to offer a debate] because of his trial date on March 13”, which was announced hours before Mr Netanyahu made his challenge.
The Blue & White leader added: “All this is just one big media spin and I don’t work for this spin. I don’t work for him.”
Mr Gantz has proposed debates in the previous two election campaigns in 2019 and was ignored by Mr Netanyahu. Senior Blue & White figures said this week that they did not see why they had to agree to a debate now that the tables had been turned and they are leading Likud in the polls.
There hasn’t been a televised debate between the two main candidates for the prime minister’s job in Israeli politics for 24 years. The last time it happened was in 1996 between Mr Netanyahu and the late Shimon Peres.
The debate then was universally judged as an unqualified victory for the youthful challenger over a tired, disinterested Labour prime minister and probably contributed to Mr Netanyahu’s surprising win in the election.
Since then, the frontrunner in the election has never agreed to risk their lead in a debate.
In 1999, Ehud Barak, who was in the lead, refused to attend and was empty-chaired, while the incumbent Netanyahu debated Yitzhak Mordechai, leader of the short-lived Centre Party, and was mauled.
The last time Mr Netanyahu was interested in holding a debate was in 2006, when Likud were badly trailing Kadima in the polls. Kadima’s leader Ehud Olmert refused.
In the five elections held since then, Mr Netanyahu has always refused to take part in a debate — until now. His challenge to Mr Gantz is widely seen as an admission that Likud is behind in the polls and the diminishing prospect of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition of four parties (Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Yamina) winning a majority in the Knesset.
Likud’s strategy is to try and boost turnout in its strongholds and maximise the base. In every public appearance in recent weeks, Mr Netanyahu has spoken of “300,000 Likudniks who stayed at home in September. If we bring them, we can win.”
Polling experts however are skeptical that such a reservoir of reluctant Likud voters exists.
Turnout in Israeli elections has been relatively high at around 70 per cent, and last September was not an exception to this.
According to one study carried out by Professor Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University on the 2019 results of 900 polling stations with traditionally high levels of Likud voters, while the turnout in both elections was the same, at an average of 65 per cent, the Likud vote went down by three per cent in September from the party’s previous tally in April.