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(photo credit: Associated Press)
Channel 10 this week issued a public invitation to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take part in a televised debate with his opponents Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu.
Olmert on the advice, or perhaps the orders, of his campaign experts, declined. His strategic adviser, Eyal Arad, explained that the debate would be no more than a "gladiators' battle" and besides a lot of populist hot air nothing of substance would be said.
This looks like a standard cop-out. Olmert's problem isn't the academic level of the debate. He has never shied away from political blood-sports before. But now that he's acting prime minister, and head of a party commanding a wide lead in the polls, he has nothing to gain from participating in a debate.
Appearing on equal terms with Peretz and Netanyahu would confer on them also some of the prestige and authority of the Prime Minister's Office. Netanyahu and Peretz suffer from a problematic public image, and Olmert might have been able to emphasize the questions over their compatability with the coveted job, but it's still a lot riskier for him.
Trying to hang on to Ariel Sharon's aura and the lead in the polls while defending himself against the flow of allegations about his past and finances, he has a lot more to lose from a bad debate performance than either Peretz or Netanyahu.
But beyond the narrow interests of the politicians, are debates really desirable from the public's point of view. What do the voters actually gain from them?
Like many other things, Israel imported the debate from the US, where it has been an integral part of the elections for almost 50 years, with each candidate undergoing grueling rehearsals and prepping. The classic debate was of course the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon one, where the stark contrast between the young and handsome senator and the faded, sweaty vice president, contributed greatly to Kennedy's victory.
A sign of the importance that the Americans attach to the debate was the widely-held theory that a suspicious bulge underneath George W. Bush's suit during the debate against John Kerry was actually attached to a hidden microphone relaying instructions in real-time.
The debates that began in Israel in the Seventies were a very drab affair, with each candidate just reciting his agenda. It was only when Netanyahu arrived on the scene that some color seeped into the picture. The Peres-Netanyahu debate of 1996 was the Israeli version of Kennedy-Nixon.
Netanyahu arrived sharp and focused, and spent the minutes before they went on air sticking reminder notes on his podium. Peres had no respect for his opponent and took little care to prepare for the debate or even sleep well the night before. He looked tired and lacked concentration on the screen and declined even the opportunity to ask Netanyahu a direct question of his own.
Considering the wafer-thin majority that gave Netanyahu victory, the importance of the debate can't be discounted.
But is it fair? Should Netanyahu, like Kennedy in his time, have gained those extra votes simply because he's a good TV performer. Would that make him a better prime minister? Perhaps Eyal Arad is right and the debate is no better than a mud-wrestling match with suit and tie.
The prime ministers who came after Netanyahu, Sharon and Barak, both refused to take part in debates. Barak, who in 1999 was leading in the polls, didn't want to step into the ring in which he knew that his opponent had a clear advantage and viewers had to make do with a debate between Netanyahu, Yitzhak Mordechai (who was to pull out of the race a few weeks later) and Barak's empty chair. The only thing anyone can remember from that debate is Mordechai's mocking laugh at Netanyahu which did a lot to crack the Bibi-image, but besides that, there was no serious argument.
Anyone who thinks that a Netanyahu-Olmert debate would be more civil should take a look at reports from the Knesset committee meeting two weeks ago where the two traded barbs.
In 2001, Barak, by this stage losing badly in the polls, eagerly pressed for a debate in the belief that he would shine next to the clumsy Sharon. Sharon, of course, firmly declined, as part of his press-handlers' tactic of saying as little as possible and not walking into any traps, and he did the same in the 2003 elections when Amram Mitzna asked for a debate. And now Olmert, who inherited Sharon's handlers, is using exactly the same strategy.
Aside from journalistic curiosity and the fact that sometimes it makes for a good show, there is really only one valid reason for holding a debate. The man who wants to lead the country should be exposed to the voters and what Olmert is doing now, giving out one carefully-rehearsed interview a week to a select reporter, is definitely not enough.
In a debate against a political opponent, the candidate is obliged to show other sides of his character that are not evident during a regular interview.
It's not just rhetorical skills and being quick on the draw. It's having to answer the most awkward and embarrassing questions, asked by an adversary. The candidate might even lose his cool and it's not a bad thing for us to see how he does that.
The question is how to produce a debate that really teaches us something we don't know about the candidates without turning the studio into a boxing ring. Once again it would do no harm to learn from the Americans who hold a series of at least three debates, each one on a different field of policy, moderated according to strict rules by seasoned journalists from different networks. Each candidate has time to put forward his beliefs and plans, and is allowed to question the other within limits.
It sounds like a dream in Israel's chaos, yet it could work here as well. But only if the networks overcome their rivalry, and come to an agreement, first of all between themselves, and then with the candidates themselves, to set up a framework for organizing the debates.
It may be too late to do this in the current campaign, but someone should add the idea to the long list of lessons that the Israeli media should be learning from these elections.
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