Netanyahu and Gantz consider live debate as PM’s trial date set

third election

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside the Blue and White party leaders in Tel Aviv in April.

Less than two weeks before Israelis head to the polls for the third time in under a year, the Jerusalem court announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial is slated to begin on March 17, a day after the new Knesset will be sworn in.

Trading barbs: Blue and White leader Benny Gantz called it a “sad day” for Israel and its citizens. “On March 17, Netanyahu will lose his mandate and his trial will begin,” Gantz said during a campaign rally on Tuesday evening. Netanyahu countered by saying that it would be an even sadder day if Gantz forms a government backed by the Arab parties. Netanyahu then invited Gantz to participate in a live televised debate — which would be the first between major candidates for prime minister since 1996. Gantz did not immediately accept the invitation. 

Why it matters: Netanyahu had largely distracted voters from his legal problems in recent weeks, starting with the Trump peace plan rollout, followed by packed campaign rallies. But that momentum could stall in the final sprint if his criminal charges return to the headlines. Additionally, Netanyahu defending himself in court will make the formation of a new government even more difficult, eliminating the option of a unity government, and raising the possibility of a fourth election in the summer. 

Latest polls: The most recent surveys show both camps short at least three seats from building a 61-seat majority, with Blue and White slightly edging out Likud.

Targeted voters: Both major parties are relying on a higher voter turnout of their base to help break the tie. In what has become a new standard at Netanyahu campaign rallies in recent days, the prime minister calls up on a stage a supporter who knows a friend who supports the Likud but didn’t bother to vote in the September 17 election and records a personalized video message or gets them on the line, urging them to go out and vote. The Likud campaign released a series of online videos with the same theme. A senior Blue and White official tells JI that while polling data shows Likud at a static 32-33 seats, the party hopes Netanyahu fatigue will cause Likud supporters to stay home: “Only turnout can break the tie.” 

Promising change: Gantz pledged on Monday that he would work to mend ties with the Democratic Party in the U.S. if he forms a government. Speaking to an audience of more than 1,000 Anglo voters in Tel Aviv, Gantz stressed: “It’s very important that we return to the bipartisan relationship between Israel and the United States. This is something that Netanyahu, unfortunately, neglected.” He added, “Blue and White doesn’t care if the American president is a Republican or a Democrat. If he is a good president for the United States, by definition he will be a good president for the state of Israel as well.”

Leveling the field: According to the Blue and White official, Gantz’s meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House earlier this month was a big boost for his image as a potential leader on the world stage, erasing an advantage Netanyahu has had for years. “This is the first time that the president of the U.S. invited the [de facto] opposition leader for a meeting just an hour before his scheduled meeting with the prime minister. It never happened before,” the official explained, adding that the fact that Netanyahu could not seize the moment and move forward with initial annexation of the Jordan Valley due to American opposition “was a big blow” to the incumbent. 

Vote early, vote often: Voting in the Israeli threepeat election kicked off on Wednesday as Israeli envoys, emissaries, embassy employees — and their spouses — stationed around the world cast their ballots. Israeli Consul General to New York Dani Dayan is among some 800 eligible voters at the New York Consulate in Manhattan. In September, Dayan said he “was excited in exactly the same way” as he was in the first Knesset election last April, but said he doesn’t expect to vote in another election at least until he leaves New York in July 2020. “To be sincere, I am less excited than the first time and the second time,” the Israeli diplomat told JI on Tuesday. “And hopeful that there is not going to be a fourth round. But this time I will refrain from betting on it.”

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