Candidates for the 17th Knesset from across the political spectrum faced off in a debate in English at Jerusalem's Great Synagogue Saturday evening sponsored by The Jerusalem Post, along with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, United Jewish Israel Appeal, the South African Zionist Federation and the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
Moderated by Post editor-in-chief David Horovitz, the debate was attended by over a thousand people, despite the wintry weather.
Representatives from all the major political parties in Israel, with the exception of the Arab parties, came to express their views on a variety of issues, including the new diplomatic and defense reality after Hamas's victory in last Wednesday's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the secular-religious divide, the influence of religion on state-funded education programs and public policy and the growing socio-economic gap.
Each candidate was given five minutes to make an introductory statement, which almost all of the candidates exceeded, cutting short the Q&A period.
Multiple candidates attacked the Kadima Party, currently leading polls by as many as 15-20 mandates.
"We don't know where Kadima is going and where they are coming from," MK Nomi Blumenthal (Likud) said.
Uri Bank of the right-wing National Union Party gave a fiery speech criticizing the government's use of force against settlers during disengagment rather than those committing terrorist acts agains them.
"What happened to our Jewish democracy? There is something profoundly wrong if the government of Israel used the IDF to take thousands of Jews... out of their homes and threw them out like garbage... Instead of dealing with Kassam rockets which are flying over the heads of those in Sderot, and soon in Ashkelon and Ashdod, they are talking about more withdrawals. This is not why we made aliya."
Attacking last summer's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria, Blumenthal called the pullout "a disaster" and asked "what logic was there in giving back land to terror?"
As for any relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians in the near future, Blumenthal said "the solution should be two states for two people but you have to look at what kind of state will be a neighbor. A state killing Jews with dreams of destroying the Jewish state - we cannot accept that as a neighbor."
On the other hand, Tzvia Greenfield, a haredi woman on the left-wing Meretz List, said that "as responsible citizens of the State of Israel we have to think of our future as a Jewish and democratic state. We either separate from the Palestinians and make our Jewish state democratic or we lose our chance to make the state of Israel democratic at all."
Greenfeld added that "we as Jews are committed to justice, human rights and peace, and if we are not, we are betraying our values. When it comes to the rights of other people who are in a lesser position in the world, some people say 'Why do we care about them?' As long as Hamas does not accept the state of Israel, we cannot do anything with them, however if Hamas changes their position [regarding its recognition of Israel], we have to reconsider."
MK Shaul Yahalom (NRP), however, said that "even in the event of a real peace agreement with the Palestinians, most of Judea and Samaria must stay in Israel's hands."
In an apparent reference to last week's National Insurance Institute report on poverty in Israel, Dr. Dan Ben-David of Kadima said that it would be tough for Israel to continue attracting new immigrants in the immediate future with the current state of poverty and growing gap between rich and poor.
"It's not even the poverty on the surface [that's important]," Ben-David argued, "but poverty behind the scenes. We've turned one of the most equal countries in the world into one of the most unequal. It's not a question about artificially fixing things, but about having a true understanding about the issues facing us and what needs to be done to change it."
MK Colette Avital (Labor) said that to solve the poverty problems, Israel must do a better job in educating its children. "We want to close the social gap. If we want to insure a better future for the children of Israel, part of that has to do with higher education and increased funds for scientific research."
Avital suggested raising the minimum wage to $1,000, increasing entitlement to pensions, and enlarging the health basket to help the elderly.