PM candidates hold virtual debate

Netanyahu promises no withdrawals; Barak says Schalit deal possible before end of gov't term.

elections2009_248 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In the closest thing to a debate during the current election campaign, the three main candidates for the premiership arrived at the Channel 2 studio in Neveh Ilan, west of the capital, on Saturday evening and answered questions submitted by Internet surfers. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu said there would be no more disengagements under his leadership, Labor chairman Ehud Barak said the chances for the release of captured soldier Gilad Schalit were higher following the Gaza offensive, and Kadima head Tzipi Livni said that the Gush Katif evacuees were not being treated seriously, and committed to changing the situation.F First came Netanyahu. "We live in a country governed by law, and the law should be respected. I support the uprooting of outposts via an agreement between the security establishment and the settlers. I think this is the right approach and it is better than a conflict," Netanyahu answered a woman who asked why she should send her children to the army when the government did nothing to remove illegal West Bank outposts. "There is a double standard and hypocrisy; why don't I ever hear about the illegal construction on the road between Dimona and Arad and in the Galilee?" Netanyahu added. One surfer asked why Netanyahu was speaking against the disengagement from Gaza when he had voted for it in 2005. "I quit the government before the disengagement and because of it. I stood up at the moment of truth and quit. I will not lead another disengagement or any withdrawals," Netanyahu said. When asked how would he treat the Israeli Arab sector he declared: "He who attacks the State of Israel should be punished, and he who helps it should be rewarded. We will work to promote harsher punishment of those who operate against the state. It is unacceptable that someone here identifies with terrorist organizations, and we will work against it. There are no rights without duties!" Netanyahu also promised to invest more resources in culture, including in "establishing 50 cultural sites, museums and archeological sites. However, culture begins in education and children will not study the Nakba, but rather Israel's heritage, and the education minister in my government will stand up and sing "Hatikva," Netanyahu said, in a reference to current Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle. Asked by Daliat al-Carmel resident Einat Halebi what he planned to do about the Iranian threat, Netanyahu said, "If I am elected, this will be my first mission, handling Iranian terror nests on the outskirts of Ashkelon and Beersheba and recruiting the entire international community for this mission. Iran will not arm itself with nuclear weapons." He promised to work to create a broad unity government, "as I should have done as a prime minister [in 1996]. If I am elected, I will turn to all the Zionist parties to form a broad unity-government. We have tremendous challenges ahead of us." Barak was the next to enter the studio. He said the chances for a deal that would bring Schalit home were higher following the success of Operation Cast Lead. "We haven't forgotten Gilad, not for a single moment," Barak said. "The recent military operation in Gaza increased the possibility to complete this mission and we promise not to neglect this issue." Barak said he hoped this would be done before the Olmert government ended its term. "For that to happen some difficult decisions are required, and I am ready to make them. I advise the government to deal less with who gets the credit for it, and to do it," he said. Barak evaded the question of whether his Labor Party would agree to sit in a government with Israel Beiteinu, only saying that "there is a need to make a clear distinction between the majority of Israeli Arabs, who are equal citizens of Israel, and the few who undermine the country, and these are the people who should be handled." "Lieberman and his entire ideology oppose that which we believe is right. The mission of the leadership is to bring hope and solutions, while Lieberman uses fear. A government led by us [Labor] will be strong enough to handle these challenges without Lieberman," Barak said. Barak rejected claims that Sephardim are discriminated against. "I think this argument belongs to a different era. My daughters were never aware if they were Sephardic or Ashkenazi, and people from Mizrahi ethnic groups have taken up significant positions. This argument is anachronistic," he said. Barak was asked about the security situation in the South and what he planned to do if the rockets continued to hit, if only in small numbers. "Hamas was beaten badly and it is shocked and stricken. We are in the course of a process that will bring quiet to the South and to Sderot. If they try us again they will suffer a serious blow. With all modesty, we will handle this issue better than the other parties. I know everyone wants to hear the bottom line, but life is more complicated than that. We have the Iranian threat before us, Syria and Hamas," he said. When asked if Labor would join a government led by Netanyahu, Barak said he had told Netanyahu he should stay in the opposition, since he had done such a good job there. "I am running for the premiership, and the challenges ahead of us require responsibility and experience. I feel that our public can count on us and we can lead the state, but also be in the opposition if the need arises," Barak said. Then came the turn of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who faced the toughest questions. She said she would work to help the Gush Katif evacuees, whose lives had yet to returned to normal, more than three years after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip that she had supported. "It wasn't a mistake. I made a difficult decision to uproot people from their homes, difficult but right. Imagine what would have happened if we had to conduct the military operation in Gaza when there were [Israeli] civilians living there?" she asked. "I initiated the idea of the first communal settlement for Gush Katif's evacuees, but the government hasn't fulfilled the promise it made to the people of Gush Katif. I commit myself to advancing these issues and to restoring their lives back to what they were, but in a different place," she said. When asked by a haredi surfer if she planned to cancel the budgets for yeshiva students, Livni said no. "But I do plan to promote legislation that rewards people who contribute to the nation via mandatory military service, for example," she said. Livni did not rule out serving in the same government with Shas. "I don't rule out anyone, and if Shas accepts my way, they can be part of my government. Kadima as a centrist party can bring together a variety of parties, as long as they don't try to extort me or ask me to support discrimination against women in the rabbinical courts," she said. Livni also rejected a request to promote men's rights at the expense of efforts to support women's rights, saying that "unfortunately, women are not equal to men in the Israel of 2009. I will fight to change this and to make sure the rest of the citizens of Israel are equal citizens. First and foremost, I want every woman to go out and vote, and then, I am sure, things will be better." Livni took a hard line when asked what those Gazans who don't support Hamas needed to do to live normal lives. "The residents of Gaza brought it on themselves. They elected Hamas. Israel needs to fight terrorism and it will continue to do so. I don't intend to reach an agreement with Hamas. I reach agreements with those who recognize my existence and as long as they don't get rid of terror, we will not reach an agreement. They need to denounce Hamas. The armed groups live among them and IDF will continue to fight them, unfortunately, even when it means that children and women will be hurt," she said. Asked whether she had any confessions to make about ever using recreational drugs, Livni said no. "It is forbidden by law," she answered a surfer's question whether she would work to legalize them, "and the last thing we need now is another challenge. We have educational and economical problems, security challenges and many social process to handle. The last thing we need is another opening for troubles." When asked by a young Greenpeace activist what would she do to prevent the suffering of animals that are used in industry, Livni said that she herself had been a vegetarian since she was 13 and that she cared deeply for animals. The three candidates were also asked what they would be do if they were not in political life. Netanyahu said he would be an author and that he planned to write his memoirs after he retired, many years from now. Livni said she would be doing something with youth, "for the soul," and Barak said he would be a public servant for the rest of his life.