Exactly 40 days from now, Israelis will go to the polls to decide the shape of their next government. The possibility of change is in the air, as the center-left parties in the Knesset face their best chance in years to form a governing coalition. The Zionist Camp list, led by Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, is currently running neck and neck with current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, and hopes to be the largest force in the new Knesset on March 18th. To interested watchers in Israel and abroad, this is plainly a high-stakes contest.
However, as the various parties, including the centrist Yesh Atid, the settler party HaBayit HaYehudi, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, have entered full-on campaign mode, a disturbing reality has come to light. Modern Israeli public debate has become increasingly shallow and detached from the issues, at the same time as economic inequality worsens, Palestinian discontent festers, and the surrounding region is convulsed by political and security crises. Instead of putting forth competing visions of the future and solutions to Israel’s many problems, the parties have engaged in name-calling, accused each other of being anti-Zionist, and appealed to the public through tired gimmicks. Such behavior cheapens the entire exercise of elections, and deprives Israel’s voting public of an opportunity to make an educated choice.
Examples of this lowbrow style abound in recent weeks. Members of the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi have cherry-picked quotes from members of the Labor-Hatnua alliance and presented them, out of context, as proof that the Zionist Camp’s name hides an anti-Zionist face. Herzog and Livni have primarily staked their campaign on anti-Netanyahu sentiment, giving rise to the slogan “Anyone But Bibi.” Avigdor Lieberman, embattled by a party corruption scandal, has reverted to a one-note strategy of bashing Israeli Arabs and playing on Jewish nationalistic sentiments by calling for a mandatory loyalty oath. Moshe Kahlon, leader of the new Likud splinter party Kulanu, has recently followed the cliché of rubbing shoulders with the common Israeli by making an appearance at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, along with other well-known members of his party. And to cap it off, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made sure to only refer to his chief opponent by the nickname “Buji,” and recently starred in a campaign video that cast his main rivals as squabbling kindergarteners – hardly a sophisticated argument.
To be fair, an election in any modern democracy will inevitably see mudslinging and negative campaigning. Such attacks are an effective tool for mobilizing and changing public opinion; Israeli politicians cannot be blamed for using the tools available. The real problem is that this behavior is largely not balanced by engagement with the key issues of concern to the public. Likud and Labor, historically the two most important Israeli parties, have not so much as adopted a policy platform in years, and Israeli political leaders have preferred to avoid specifics on the campaign trail.
Even when confronted with the recent Tel Aviv stabbing attack, the type of tragedy that deeply concerns a security-minded Israeli public, leaders from the largest parties have largely stuck to their previous slogans. Netanyahu blamed Palestinian incitement; Lieberman issued a blanket condemnation of every Arab on the political scene; and Herzog and Livni made a vague statement promising full support for the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet if elected. None offered any ideas on how the attack could have been prevented, or what they would do differently in the next government to keep Israelis safe.
With just months to go before the election of the 20th Knesset, it is unrealistic to expect a wholesale change in the way Israeli politics operate. However, there is a way to inject a bit of give-and-take between the chief competitors over the key issues of social policy, economics, and defense. Acting in his capacity as the chairman of the opposition of the 19th Knesset, Isaac Herzog should challenge the Prime Minister to one or more publicly televised debates. A face-to-face meeting in front of the nation would force Netanyahu and Herzog to directly confront the other’s plans and ideas, instead of sniping through interviews, headlines, and attack ads. The debate could have sections carved out for specific issues, hopefully serving to elevate the public discussion across many policy areas.
Such an event is sorely missing from Israeli politics. As the only fully functional democracy in the region, Israel is often compared to the United States, but in this respect they could not be more different. In the U.S. presidential debates have become part of the electoral machinery, and are taken for granted by American voters. In the 2012 election, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met twice, in addition to a Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. These came after a full 20 debates during the Republican primary. While there is a case to be made that the U.S. could stand fewer debates, Israel might benefit from giving them a try.
As far as timing goes, Herzog could capitalize on the Prime Minister’s upcoming address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3rd by calling for the debate to be scheduled immediately after, perhaps on the 8th. This would serve to push back on whatever momentum Netanyahu gains from his speech, and would guarantee a large audience at home. It would also offer Herzog a chance to demonstrate his differences from the Prime Minister on the key issues of security and foreign policy, an area where he is generally perceived to be weaker.
In the end, the question of who occupies the Prime Minster’s office after the upcoming elections will likely turn at least as much on Israeli voters’ perceptions of their leaders as on specific policy debates. That’s simply how democracies work. However, there is room to introduce more discussion over the issues into Israel’s election season, and a Herzog-Netanyahu debate would go a long way toward accomplishing that. If Israelis want to make a truly informed choice on March 17th, they should expect as much from their political class.