Although an official one-on-one debate between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main contender Isaac Herzog has not taken place in the run-up to Election Day, the two politicians did briefly exchange words on Saturday on Channel 2's Meet the Press.
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The program's host Rina Mazliah, who interviewed the leaders of the largest parties one after the other, had finished interviewing Herzog in the studio and welcomed Netanyahu, who was speaking remotely.
When offered to present Herzog with any question he'd like, Netanyahu asked: "Why did they [Herzog and Tzipi Livni] condemn the construction in Jerusalem? Why don't they offer support when I am fighting to remove threats like the Iranian nuclear weapons? Why do they refuse to say they stand behind the immense security effort we are undertaking?"
"The security of Israel is more important to us than anything else," Herzog responded. "We knew how to safeguard it and we will know how to safeguard it. The one who put Jerusalem as the main focus even though no one is talking about its division is Benjamin Netanyahu."
Herzog then turned to Netanyahu and asked whether he was "willing to accept the principle whereby the leader of the largest party will form the government," but Netanyahu ignored the question, instead pressing on with the previous point: "Just a few months ago we built in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and he and Tzipi Livni criticized [it.] If Jews have no right to build in Jerusalem, where do they have a right to do so?"
Herzog and Livni, added Netanyahu, "withdraw immediately and are not willing to step up and take a real stand that would protect our security interests. When the time comes and the prime minister faces a test," Netanyahu said, he must make a stand about not withdrawing to the 1967 lines.
"The international community knows you're weak," answered Herzog, "and do not accept your position. The Palestinians have identified your weakness and so they're headed toward an international move."
Netanyahu repeated his claim that there is a "huge international effort with huge amounts of money" - involving "left-wing organizations and elements in the media" - designed to help Herzog and Livni. When the host, Mazliah, told him that "foreign money" has helped him as well over the years, Netanyahu said: "That is not true."
'I provided leadership'
The conversation then turned to domestic issues, namely the rising cost of living and the housing crisis. Netanyahu was asked whether he let the citizens down with this unfulfilled promises to tend to those issues.
"People understand that we’ve done great things," he said. "We’ve provided free education from the age of three; we’ve reduced the cost of electricity; we’ve raised soldiers’ wages and more. All this is shoved aside. We have a primary mission which I don’t deny – reducing the cost of housing, just as we’ve reduced the price of mobile phones."
Netanyahu added: "I provided leadership - while global economies were collapsing we devoted billions for education for three year olds. That’s a phenomenal sum, in addition to aid for Holocaust survivors. This was all done by the prime minister. I told cabinet ministers to bring to my attention any social issue, anything that would relieve the distress. I told them to present me with reforms. We’ve done a lot and much remains to be done."
The host reminded the premier that he has "a villa in Caesarea and another house in Jerusalem. You live in the official Prime Minister’s residence and you are funded head to toe by the state. Do you understand how the hardscrabble public finds it difficult to read the Comptroller’s report about wastage of public funds?"
"The same report also speaks of a dramatic reduction in expenses and lessons that were drawn," Netanyahu answered. "Our record of achievements is so rich."
So why doesn’t the public support you, the host pressed him. "That’s precisely the point. I am liked, the public prefers me to continue to lead by many percentage points over my rival," Netanyahu retorted.
When asked about the Likud trailing the Zionist Camp by several seats, Netanyahu cautioned that" there is real concern that if we don’t close the gap in the next few days Herzog and Livni, supported by Arabs and leftist NGOs, will form the next government."
But Mazliah pressed: "You attack the media with all the means at your disposal. I don’t want to use the term whining. If you really care for the country’s citizens why isn’t there massive support for you, why are you busy attacking the media?"
"First of all this isn’t an assault on democracy," said Netanyahu. "The media is merciless in its attacks. Its role may be to criticize the government but it does things selectively. I’m telling you that you’re wrong in what you just said. Most of the public wants me to continue. They think they have the privilege of voting for other parties."
"Will you again create an unstable government," the host asked, "a bit from here and a bit from there?"
"I don’t think so," answered the prime minister. "If the public gives Likud more power I can form a stable government with the national camp. I obviously will include all the natural partners. I regret that Moshe Kahlon hasn’t yet declared his support. I’ll give him a senior economic post. We worked together to reduce mobile phone costs, we can do more by working together."
Finally, Netanyahu was asked if he would retire should the Likud win less than 20 seats. "I’m focused on the Likud winning, on me and my colleagues’ victory," he said.
Earlier on the show, Herzog said he was convinced he will be elected as Israel's next prime minister on Tuesday.
"These elections are a choice between despair and hope," he said. "The Israeli public is sick of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and knows I am the only one that can take the helm and replace him."
When asked whether he agrees with Netanyahu on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Herzog said the difference "is about the way." "There are no differences about the strategic threat [from Iran,]" he said. "But when Bibi speaks and speaks, Iran has become a threshold nuclear state." Herzog added that Netanyahu is "out of the loop" these days in terms of intelligence and decision-making on Iran "because he went head-to-head with the U.S." If Netanyahu's Congress speech wasn't political," said Herzog, "he would have made it after the elections."
Lieberman: Odeh is liar and a traitor
Besides Netanyahu and Herzog, politicians who appeared on the show Saturday included Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Shas head Arye Dery, Yahad leader Eli Yishai, Yisraeli Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, Joint List leader Iman Odeh and Meretz leader Zehava Galon.
The Joint List's Odeh was asked about statements made by the head of the List's communication unit Raja Za’atra, according to which the Islamic State draws inspiration from Zionism. "I don't accept historical comparisons," Odeh said. "The crimes that accompanied the establishment of the state of Israel were committed. If Israel recognized those crimes it would benefit all of its citizens."
Yisrael Beiteinu's Lieberman, who entered the studio as Odeh was leaving, called the Joint List leader "a liar and a traitor."
Yesh Atid's Lapid refused to divulge who he would recommend for prime minister, and said that "the days of right and left are over." According to Lapid, "most of the Israeli public is at the center, and deserves representation." Kulanu's Kahlon said that "they have tried to take us right and left, to ISIS and to Washington, and at the end the housing crisis is what stands at the forefront."