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We propose a pre-election debate, but not a candidates' brawl.

elections2009_248 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Benjamin Disraeli was reputedly once asked by a novice member of parliament whether he would advise him to take frequent part in House debate. Disraeli answered: "No, I do not think you ought to do so, because it is much better that the House should wonder why you do not speak than why you do." So in joining Ehud Barak's call for a debate between the three most likely candidates for prime minister, this newspaper is mindful that such an encounter could easily devolve into a cacophony of vacuous sound-bites. Jaded Israelis claim intelligent debate is alien to the political culture. Moreover, they say: We know the candidates - too well. We've already made up our minds. What could we learn from a debate? To which we say: Plenty. What we propose is not a candidates' brawl. We envision a tightly choreographed discussion, operating under strictly enforced rules and chaperoned by a moderator respected for fair-mindedness who won't take drivel delivered in clever cadence for an answer. There are just 17 days left before Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Knesset, from which the next government will be formed. Public opinion surveys tell us that the Likud, Kadima and Labor - in that order - are in the lead, with Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Hatnua Hahadasha-Meretz a tier below. Perhaps another five smaller parties, including Arab nationalists and haredim, will pass the ludicrously low two-percent threshold. Whatever other electoral surprises may be in store, it is all but certain that Israel's next prime minister will, in order of likelihood, be Binyamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni or Barak. Wouldn't it be valuable, then, if we could pin them down on where they want to take the country, and how they distinguish themselves from one another? The voters deserve more than the manipulative TV electioneering spots that begin rolling this coming Tuesday and the print, billboard and Internet ads already attacking our senses. ISRAEL'S first televised election debate took place between Labor's Shimon Peres and the Likud's Menachem Begin in the 1977 race, which broke Labor's lock on power. In 1996, in the wake of the Rabin assassination, Peres barely deigned to acknowledge Netanyahu in an encounter that contributed to Likud's win. In 1999, Ehud Barak boycotted a three-way debate with Yitzhak Mordechai and Binyamin Netanyahu. Mordechai chipped away at Netanyahu's credibility by asking the Likud chief to look him in the eye and answer his questions. In the event, Mordechai ultimately threw his support to Barak, who went on to win. In 2006, Kadima's Ehud Olmert refused to debate Labor's Amir Peretz. Netanyahu and Livni may be right to see no political profit in engaging in a debate with Barak. The only beneficiaries would be the voters - yet shouldn't that count for something? The format we envisage would require Netanyahu, Livni and Barak to each answer questions on national security and domestic issues, with the opportunity for rebuttal. For instance, Livni might be asked whether, since Mahmoud Abbas says Israeli-Palestinian talks have reached a dead end, Kadima still stands as the party of unilateralism, disengagement and convergence. And if unilateralism is to be jettisoned, what sets Kadima apart? Barak could perhaps be invited to delineate the tweaks and changes he'd want to make to the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace initiative, which Labor says it sees as a good jumping-off point for negotiations. Binyamin Netanyahu's question could be: Since you are on record as acquiescing in the creation of a Palestinian state, what - when all is said and done - separates the Likud from Kadima and Labor? Going beyond the issue of security, we'd ask: • Do you favor reforming Israel's electoral system to allow some form of district representation? • With increasing numbers of Israelis Jewishly illiterate and the Orthodox rabbinate alienating many from their heritage, how would you enrich the Jewish content of our lives? • How can ordinary Israelis be shielded from the effects of the global economic recession? COULD such a debate happen? Let's put cynicism aside and call on Netanyahu, Livni and Barak to treat the voters intelligently - to grant us 90 minutes of their time - and explain where they want to lead Israel.