Blue & White Chairman turned down on Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation to hold an election debate against him.
"His offer is an election spin," Gantz said. "He is lying. I will not take part in this fiasco. Netanyahu has been avoiding debates for over a decade now. He also avoided my calls for debate in previous election rounds. He only wants it because the date of his trial was set for March 17."
Netanyahu taunted the former IDF chief in response, implying Gantz doesn't have the necessary courage to lead the country.
"Gantz is afraid to debate me and he knows why. Israel needs a strong leader and not a coward," Netanyahu said. "If Gantz is too afraid to debate the prime minister, then how will he withstand the colossal challenges the State of Israel faces? I call on Gantz once more: come debate me."
The premier called on Gantz Tuesday to debate him on live television.
"I am ready to come here or somewhere else. We will speak to the public," Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 20. "I don't have any teleprompters, let's talk about the real issues. What we have done and what we plan to do for the State of Israel. I invite you [Gantz] to a televised debate."
Gantz refusal constitutes a sharp turn for the centrist leader, who only on Saturday said he was ready to debate the incumbent.
"I am ready to debate, but the only debate will be his [Netanyahu's] against the witnesses and prosecution in court," Gantz told Ynet in an interview. "Ever since his indictments were filed, this is the debate that counts."
A Blue & White official dismissed the premier's challenge as an attempt to distract the public from his upcoming corruption trial, which was announced earlier Tuesday to open on March 17, two weeks after the general elections.
"This is a poor attempt to distract the public from the opening of his trial," said the official. "Netanyahu has been refusing to debate for ten years now and suddenly, the same day his trial was announced, he wants a debate. He'll have a debate with the prosecutor in court."
Commenting on Tuesday's announcement of Netanyahu's trial, Gantz called it a "sad day for the State of Israel."
"On March 17, his mandate will expire and his trial will begin. Netanyahu will only deal with himself, he will not be able to care for the citizens of the State of Israel," said Gantz. "As former IDF chief of staff, I know very well that the prime minister must dedicate all of his time to the most important issues of the state. He must be available, focused and free of personal interests. This is a sad day for the State of Israel and its citizens."
Earlier Tuesday the Justice Ministry announced Netanyahu's corruption trial will open on March 17 at 3 p.m., three weeks after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit officially filed the indictments against Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on three separate charges of corruption.
The move came just hours after Netanyahu, who was in Washington for the roll-out of U.S. President Donald Trump's Mideast peace plan, withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
This is the first time in Israel's 71-year history that a sitting prime minister has been indicted. Olmert resigned before the charges, that ultimately led to a prison sentence, could be brought against him.
The indictments relate to three separate investigations, known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 (Case 3000, which related to the purchase of German submarines by the Israeli Navy, did not lead to charges against the prime minister).
The most serious charges are connected to Case 4000 and include bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is accused of passing regulations that gave telecom magnate Shaul Elovitch benefits worth over $250 million to his company Bezeq. In return, Bezeq's news site, Walla, published favorable articles about Netanyahu and his family. Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris have also been charged with bribery.
Netanyahu is also charged with fraud and breach of trust in Case 2000, in which the prime minister and Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet owner Arnon Mozes allegedly discussed mutual assistance to promote one another's interests during private meetings that began in 2009 and lasted for several years. Mozes has been charged with bribery over the affair.
Case 1000 also involves charges of fraud and breach of trust, in which Netanyahu's gifts of champagne from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer turned into a sort of supply line.
The indictment said Netanyahu assisted the Israeli Hollywood mogul Milchan with extending his U.S. visa. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, Packer received in return.