Israelis love to argue, just not as candidates in campaign debates

Amsalam said that the debate challenge itself is “humiliating” for the prime minister. “What, everyone will now challenge the prime minister to a debate? Forget it, this is a joke.”

Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin chat at the inaugural session of the 10th Knesset in 1981 (photo credit: GPO)
Shimon Peres and Menachem Begin chat at the inaugural session of the 10th Knesset in 1981
(photo credit: GPO)
Nine days after Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn held their final debate before last Thursday’s UK elections, and four days before the US Democratic Party will hold the sixth of its 12 debates this primary season, Israel’s Communications Minister David Amsalem said on Sunday that candidate debates were no longer relevant.
“They are passé,” Amsalem, a strong ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said of debates during an interview on KAN Bet. He was referring to Likud leadership challenger Gideon Sa’ar’s call a day earlier for a debate with Netanyahu before the Likud’s December 26 primary.
Amsalem said that the debate challenge itself is “humiliating” for the prime minister: “What? Everyone will now challenge the prime minister to a debate? Forget it. This is a joke.”
Amid the political uncertainty gripping the country as it enters its third election campaign in a year, one thing is fairly certain: there will not be any debates, either for the Likud primaries or between the two leading candidates for prime minister before the March 2 balloting.
Despite Israel’s famous argumentativeness, candidate debates are not something rooted in the political culture here. As Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University, put it, “This is a little bit of a mystery, because Israelis like to debate each other to death.”
Which doesn’t mean that there have never been debates. There have. Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres debated each other once before their 1977 and 1981 elections; Netanyahu debated Peres before the 1996 balloting; and Netanyahu debated Yitzchak Mordechai (with an empty seat on the set for Ehud Barak, who refused to take part) in a candidates’ debate in 1999.
That there has not been a debate between the major candidates since then – the heads of eight smaller candidates held one debate in 2015 – likely has something to do with Netanyahu’s memory of the debate with Mordechai.
That debate did not go well for the Netanyahu, the incumbent, who at times seemed caught off balance as Mordechai went on the attack and said his leadership was characterized by “a lack of integrity, of honesty, of decency.”
Netanyahu’s debate with Peres three years earlier, however, went much better. Then Peres was the incumbent, and – according to Gilboa – looked “old and aloof” compared to the “younger, more dynamic and aggressive” Netanyahu. He said that in a race Netanyahu won by just some 30,000 votes, some have attributed this slim victory to that debate appearance.
“Many believe Peres made a mistake” agreeing to that interview, Gilboa said. “Those who seek the televised debates usually are the underdog who have nothing to lose, and much more to gain.”
Unlike in the United States, where debates have become almost a compulsory part of the election campaign – where if you do not participate it appears either that you are afraid or trying to hide something – Gilboa said that in Israel there is no political price for refusing to take part.
Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Hebrew University political science professor, said that for incumbents in Israel, “the price of not participating in a debate is less than the price of participation, where you create a symmetry” with the person you are debating.
Rahat said that Netanyahu has set himself up as almost a “supreme leader” whom no one else can approach, and that part of the way he has done this is to refuse to debate. “Because even if he wins, the very fact of his participation lowers him,” Rahat said.
Mitchell Barak, a pollster who heads Keevoon, a survey research and strategic communications firm, said that Netanyahu’s refusal to take part in a debate is part of a bigger problem – an unwillingness to have any unscripted moments with the Israeli press.
Barak pointed out that Netanyahu has done away with traditional Rosh Hashanah interviews with the Israeli media outlets, only gives interviews to the press during the campaign, does not do press conferences for Israeli reporters, and has done away over the last couple years with the traditional news conference all prime ministers used to give the country’s editors to mark November 29 – the anniversary of the UN Palestine partition vote.
“It’s a real problem,” Barak said. “He likes to control everything,” adding that the public loses by a lack of debates.
“In debates, the candidates need to have in-depth knowledge of the material,” he said. “They can’t just get up there with sound bites and prepared statements.”
Rahat said that in democracies it is important for people to be able to watch their leaders in real time, listen to their values, and be able to gauge their abilities in terms of presenting their cases. On the other hand, he said, the down side of debates is that a candidate’s “rhetorical abilities may cover for other inabilities.”
Nevertheless, he argued, in terms of an “ideal democracy, ideal politics, it is preferable to have debates. Politicians should be exposed and transparent.”
This is even more important, Rahat said, in the age of social media, where people gravitate to sites and platforms “where they only interact with their own side.” In a debate, those watching the debate are hearing not only the side they want to hear, but the other side as well.
Bar-Ilan’s Gilboa said that there was another reason for the debates as well: they force the candidates to move away from strictly negative campaigns.
“What we are seeing both in the US and Israel is too much negative campaigning,” he said, “with candidates not saying what they want to do, but just criticizing and attacking the other side – mudslinging.” Debates, he said, generally force candidates to articulate what they are for, not only what they are against.
Debates, he added, tend to have a dynamic of their own beyond the actual arguments put forward by the candidates. For instance, there is commentary before, during and after the actual debates, with pundits sounding off on who won and lost. That commentary itself influences public opinion.
Which might also explain why Netanyahu is unlikely to go to a debate before the elections – because of his distrust in the media, and a belief that no matter what happens, the commentary will be that he lost. And that is something that can only hurt him in the campaign.