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Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Comment: Ringside seats at the great debate
By DAVID BRINN
17/01/2013
Whether it helped undecided voters make up their minds, solidified decisions already made, or raised new questions, the debate achieved its goals.
 
Public debates have a way of bringing out the best – and worst – in people.

Wednesday night’s Jerusalem Post and AACI-sponsored Israel Elections 2013 debate at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue – the final in a series of four events leading up to Tuesday’s Knesset election – started off with the Western-style gentility that befit the overwhelmingly English-speaking audience of over 1,000 veteran and recent immigrants to Israel.

Moderated in a firm but fair manner by the Post’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde, the debate pitted representatives of the country’s eight leading Jewish parties against each other in a lastminute attempt to woo undecided voters.

Of course, if appearances are more than skin deep, a quick perusal of the largely modern Orthodox crowd belied their conservative tendency well before they rousingly applauded the opening statements of Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Strong Israel’s Arieh Eldad.

In fact, Bennett created a “rock star” aura upon his arrival, after the halfdozen foreign news crews that had arrived to film the debate swarmed around him to get close-ups of the new superstar of Israeli politics.

The other representatives – Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein representing Likud Beytenu, Alon Tal with The Tzipi Livni Party, Dov Lipman with Yesh Atid, Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Shas’s Menahem Shem Tov – all received respectful applause following their statements, which all touted their party’s attributes, instead of denigrating their opponents.

Even the representative from Meretz, Laura Wharton – clearly nervous about appearing before an “enemy” crowd unlike any Tel Aviv audience she’s ever experienced – garnered modest applause and nary a catcall after her intro.

The fun began when the microphones were opened up for questions from the audience.

It seems only natural in a public gathering of Anglos that there will be small percentage of eccentric ideologues or directionless lost souls. And they invariably make their way to a live mic.

However, amid the colorful sideshows requiring intervention from security (one involving a near fistfight over something that had nothing to do with politics, another involving a disruptive rant about the descendants of King David), a number of relevant audience questions made way for concise podium answers.

Little by little, the candidates began trading barbs with each other, with Bayit Yehudi being the primary target of both the Right and Left. Apparently, the new kids on the block are also the most threatening to the established parties.

During the session’s final two-minute summations, the politicians sharpened their teeth, with Shas’s Shem Tov promising his party would focus on bread and not peace, Eldad outlining why Strong Israel will keep a Palestinian state from coming into existence from outside the government and Bayit Yehudi explaining how it will prevent the same thing from inside the government.

But when Meretz’s Wharton urged the next government to adopt the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative, the crowd booed loudly and angrily, ending the evening on a volatile note.

Outside the synagogue, the crowd was still buzzing, and some of it stung. One woman in an American accent called Herzog a “drip” and deemed Wharton “disgusting.” Apparently, the concept of democracy she grew up with in the US didn’t transfer once she made aliya.

But for the more open-minded public, the debate was a sterling exercise in presenting the vast range of options that await the Israeli voters next week.

Whether it helped undecided voters make up their minds, solidified decisions already made, or raised new questions, the debate achieved its goals.

Now it’s up to the voters to do their part.
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