The biggest losers of Thursday night’s televised debate were two people who were absent: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog.
The leaders of eight political parties – Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, the Joint List’s Aiman Oudeh, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, Shas’s Arye Deri, Yahad’s Eli Yishai, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, and Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On – faced off and presented their positions in the Channel 2 debate.
However Herzog refused to participate in a debate without Netanyahu, because he wants to present himself as the only other candidate for prime minister. Netanyahu refused to participate in a debate without Herzog’s No. 2, Tzipi Livni, with whom Herzog has a rotation agreement for the premiership.
They both lost out by underestimating Israeli voters and thinking we would accept their excuses. Their reasons for not presenting their views and debating them live, before the whole nation, are unsatisfactory, certainly in light of the fact that Channel 2 was willing to hold a separate broadcast for just the two of them.
Netanyahu and Herzog also missed an opportunity to reinforce their own parties by leaving the field to debaters who may have persuaded voters to move to one of the smaller parties. Herzog is less vocal on the matter, but Netanyahu has been so concerned about Bayit Yehudi taking too many votes from the Likud that he’s spoken about it in public and posted several times on social media about it.
Instead, he gave Bennett, who did very well in the debate, a prime platform to get more votes.
United Torah Judaism’s Ya’acov Litzman also skipped the debate, but it’s hard to call him a loser for it, since the vast majority of his voters do not have televisions and wouldn’t be swayed by a debate. At the same time, UTJ and the entire Ashkenazi haredi public lost out, because the party did not present its constituents’ cause to the general public, despite constant complaints of discrimination and hatred from secular people.
Had Litzman or even more so UTJ’s firebrand No. 2, Moshe Gafni, decided to participate in the debate, they could easily have come out on top with their quick wit.
The haredi party leaders who did participate in the debate, Deri and Yishai, both came off badly. Certainly to non-haredi viewers, their argument over what the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would think or do seemed irrelevant.
For those who care about Yosef’s legacy, Deri seemingly had the stronger argument, that Yosef probably would have wanted Shas to stay united and that he never allowed religious-Zionists and students of Meir Kahane into his party, as Yishai did in Yahad.
However, Deri was in panic mode, coming off as nervous and even on the verge of tears.
Yishai was calm, with a Cheshire-cat grin plastered on his face the whole time, but spoke in superficial sound-bites about Jewish unity and refusing to sling mud.
Deri was given a chance to shine later on, though, when facing off against Lapid. The two argued in a way that surely appealed to their bases, though perhaps less so to other people. Deri, who has taken on his mother’s maiden name and calls himself “Arye Machlouf Deri” these days, apparently because it sounds even more Moroccan, accused Lapid, who lives in Ramat Aviv and whose father was from Hungary, of condescension to religious people and racism against those of Middle Eastern descent.
Lapid did his best when arguing with Deri, pointing out that he is a convicted felon and saying he should be rehabilitated, and standing strong behind his policies that haredim hate, like requiring them to serve in the IDF or perform national service, and to study the core curriculum.
Despite this, Lapid came out on the losing side, because of his weak showing when debating Kahlon on housing and Bennett on the breakup of their “brotherhood.” Lapid proved that having a successful career as a television presenter does not make a person a good debater. His habit of leaning forward, tilting his head and wiggling his eyebrows may make him an effective speech-giver, but it didn’t work in a debate. As Bennett said to him during the debate: “Just because you do that thing with your eyebrows, doesn’t make [what you’re saying] true.”
As far as substance is concerned, the Kulanu leader seemed to have all the numbers on housing, and Lapid did not have satisfactory answers, simply repeating what he said before Kahlon asked him a question. Kahlon did not get very much screen time during the debate, but his powerful showing against Lapid, one of his major competitors for centrist votes, made him a winner.
Another loser in the debate was Liberman.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader seemed to have studied his Eretz Nehederet TV parody before coming to the debate. To say he was stiff would be flattering, and he lacked any substance other than baiting Oudeh as the Arab representative. One memorable exchange was when Oudeh said “We [Arabs] are 20% of the population,” and Liberman responded, “for now.” Another was when Liberman told Oudeh: “Why are you even here? You’re unwanted.”
Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu are more than just anti-Arab rhetoric, and anyone who has seen or heard him speak in person knows he can be more expressive than he was on Thursday, but he didn’t show either of those qualities.
Oudeh, on the other hand, was a winner, because he came off as calm and mature, and did not shout. That may seem like faint praise, but his performance was one that regular viewers of Channel 2 News rarely see from Arab MKs, and he surely made a positive impression on viewers who are used to (and do not like) MKs Haneen Zoabi and Ahmed Tibi. He focused on democracy, equality, and eradicating poverty, and not on the Palestinians or the “occupation.” On the other hand, when those last two issues came up, and he was asked about some of Zoabi’s more controversial statements, he didn’t have any answers.
Another winner was Gal-On, who was calm and collected and made her points clearly and forcefully. She effectively brought up her campaign’s main message over and over again: Meretz is the only truly left-wing party; Herzog hasn’t committed to not being in a government with Netanyahu, but we did; so if you want a center-left government, vote Meretz. She said that several times, without sounding repetitive, and managed to insert substance from her party’s platform, as well.
Like Meretz, one of Bayit Yehudi’s big campaign messages is that they are the ideological party on their side of the political map that will ensure the right type of coalition, and Bennett and Gal-On both excelled when they debated each other. Bennett talked about not being willing to give up one centimeter of land to Arabs and opposing a Palestinian state, while Gal-On called to end the “occupation.” Gal-On called Bennett a fear-monger, and Bennett said the Left hasn’t learned anything since Oslo.
The biggest winner of the night was definitely Bennett. The Bayit Yehudi chairman was the focus of more barbs than anyone else, and when the candidates could ask anyone a question, half chose him. He answered with aplomb, was composed and self-assured 100 percent of the time, without coming off as too angry or outraged – an occasional weakness of his. He did not waver from Bayit Yehudi’s messaging once, but did not come off like he was reading off a bunch of slogans like Lapid, Yishai, and Liberman did.