Why No Debates in Israeli Election

One of the stranger aspects of watching this month’s Israeli election campaign from afar is the absence of a televised debate between the two top candidates for Prime Minister – the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.

There was one debate during the current campaign in which eight party leaders participated – but not Netanyahu or Herzog. Netanyahu refused to participate without Herzog’s No. 2, Tzipi Livni, with whom Herzog has a so-called “rotation” agreement to take turns serving as Prime Minister for two years each if they win. Herzog refused to take part without Netanyahu.

But analysts believe that not debating is a key part of Netanyahu’s strategy to present himself to the voters as the only true statesman in the race, and therefore the only credible candidate for prime minister. To sit on the same stage as Herzog would place them both on the same level, making Herzog Netanyahu’s equal.

Still, it seems a little bizarre that Netanyahu would fly all the way to the United States to address the US Congress and the American people and yet not submit himself to scrutiny by his own people through a debate.

Debates have become a staple in elections in most major democracies. In the United States, we’ve grown accustomed to having three debates, that become the focal point of our presidential campaigns.  It now seems impossible that a candidate could refuse to participate without paying an enormous electoral price.

In France, debates have happened regularly since 1974 (although President Jacques Chirac refused to debate far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002).  The German federal election of 2013 featured a debate; the British general election of 2010 had three. The British are now haggling over the terms of debates in the election coming up this year – but it is certain there will be at least one and probably more.

Israel too used to have a tradition of electoral debates. Menachem Begin debated Shimon Peres in the elections of 1977 and 1981. Netanyahu himself debated Peres in the 1996 campaign.  In that sense, this year is a step backward from the past and does a real disservice to the voters and Israel’s democracy.

A debate would be tremendously useful now amid the confusion that has arisen over Netanyahu’s attitude toward the two-state solution following a release of a statement that appeared this weekend in a weekly Shabbat pamphlet that contained the stances of each political party on creating a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party message announced that his Bar-Ilan University speech of 2009, in which he accepted a two-state solution, was “null and void” and went on to state that “Netanyahu’s entire political biography is a fight against the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Later Netanyahu’s office denied that he had repudiated his Bar Ilan speech, but added: “Prime Minister Netanyahu has made clear for years that given the current conditions in the Middle East, any territory that is given will be seized by the radical Islam just like what happened Gaza and in southern Lebanon.”

This kind of ambiguity has been Netanyahu’s stock in trade for years. It is useful for him to tell the international community and American Jews that he favors a two-state solution in theory. It is equally important for his electoral prospects that he tell right-wing voters he has opposed a Palestinian state for his entire political life.

This is precisely the kind of uncertainty that could be cleared up in a debate. Presumably, face-to-face with his rival, Netanyahu could be put on the spot and compelled to state his true position for all to hear.

Israel remains a proud democracy – but it is really a great pity that voters will not have the opportunity to evaluate the two top candidates to lead the nation side by side on the same stage. Netanyahu may benefit – but the country and democracy loses.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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