Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head MK Tzachi Hanegbi (R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and opposition chief Isaac Herzog.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There are very few occasions on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog directly debate each other in the Knesset. While it may be naïve to expect them to have a pleasant exchange of views, it is surely not too much to expect a minimal attempt to debate, even fiercely debate, the issues.
Sadly, I cannot remember the last time this happened. During the recent exchanges between the two most of the time and effort was expended on mutual condemnations, specifically about who they had or had not condemned. The lack of proper debate is allowing extremists to infiltrate the public arena. It is their responsibility to change the style and substance of the debate.
The last flare-up centered on President Reuven Rivlin’s participation in the Haaretz/New Israel Fund Peace Conference in New York in December 2015. Although they did not share the same platform or even the same session, the president came under intense attack from parts of the Right because a controversial civil rights organization, Breaking the Silence, also made a presentation at the conference. Breaking the Silence has become the latest bête noir in the ongoing argument over the agenda and tactics of parts of the Israeli peace camp, and in particular what is considered to be the hard or even anti-Zionist Left.
During a Knesset debate on domestic poverty immediately following the Haaretz conference, Herzog turned to Netanyahu and demanded that he condemn those attacking Rivlin. In his response Netanyahu turned back to Herzog to condemn him for not condemning Breaking the Silence. Obviously any focus on the question of poverty and economic issues went straight out the window.
Why does this matter? Who really believes that the big political questions are ever decided in live session in the Knesset? While the Knesset is not an academic debating society, it is symbolic that the leaders of the main political factions in the country, as represented in the Knesset, cannot have a proper debate. This gaping hole in the public discourse creates an ever growing vacuum in the center ground.
“Nature abhors a vacuum” is attributed to Aristotle and while the science of this has been questioned over the years, its colloquial understanding has become widespread. When the debate around ideas and policy within the mainstream of Israeli politics and the public sphere becomes very shallow, replaced with condemnation and counter-condemnation, then an ideas vacuum is created.
External pressures on this vacuum will continue to come from the extremes of Israeli society, whether from the Left or the Right. The longer this lack of debate continues, the wider those extreme edges will grow. They have supremely clear ideology, and for them there is no question that doesn’t have a black and white answer. We are in danger of their ideas filling the space left behind by the mainstream politicians.
Life in Israel is rarely black and white. Indeed, Israel faces complex challenges, both internally and externally. The more the mainstream leadership allows a vacuum to exist around those challenges, the more encouragement those with extreme ideas will have to influence the public debate.
For those who say it is not possible, I can testify that it absolutely is. Between the young cadets in IDF officer training, this type of constructive dialogue occurs on a regular basis. During their Gesher seminar these men and women responsible for our nation’s troops grapple with critical social challenges arising within the military and beyond. We do not expect them to agree on all matters, but to build the framework within which common ground is created and respect is generated in disagreement. I am repeatedly struck by their humility, honesty and commitment to the process, and to their depth of thought as they take responsibility for being IDF officers. This is what we and they need to see more of from our role models in politics.
All of us, on Left and Right, should do more to block the extremists. It may be easiest to make ad hominem attacks, but this only increases the corrosive effect of extremists, who seek conflict with both Herzog and Netanyahu and the type of Israel they seek to lead. If they do not change the tone of their arguments, we will all wake up to discover that what was once well beyond the pale has become mainstream.The writer is chairman of Gesher and managing partner of Goldrock Capital.