In defense of debate

The Jerusalem Post will be conducting a series of English-language debates across the nation.

Isaac Herzog interviews with The Jerusalem Post's Election Arena  (photo credit: screenshot)
Isaac Herzog interviews with The Jerusalem Post's Election Arena
(photo credit: screenshot)
Public pressure is building for the leaders of all the major political parties to participate in an election debate.
Channel 2 and Channel 10 have launched initiatives for televised debates. Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog, who has been calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to debate him for weeks, finally received a tentatively positive answer from Netanyahu.
Hours after the prime minister’s advisers saw a video interview with The Jerusalem Post’s political correspondent Gil Hoffman, they released a statement saying Netanyahu would debate Herzog only if the Zionist Union’s second candidate for prime minister, MK Tzipi Livni, takes part as well. Netanyahu also insists the debate take place after his March 3 speech to Congress about Iran.
These are very positive developments: Free and open discourse like the kind fostered by heated debate is indispensable to ensure the public is informed about the issues.
That’s why The Jerusalem Post – in association with the AACI, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, Beit Knesset Ohel Ari, and the Tel Aviv International Salon – will be conducting a series of English-language debates across the nation.
In America, it is customary for politicians to duke it out verbally on stage, but Israel lacks a debating tradition.
Indeed, the last time candidates for prime minister went head-to-head was in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu sparred with Shimon Peres. In 1999, Ehud Barak, the leading candidate who ended up winning the election, opted out of a debate with Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordechai.
By absenting himself, Barak was perceived by many as being above the fray and seemed to have benefited from avoiding a mudslinging match. Perhaps this is the thinking behind Netanyahu’s reluctance to take part in a debate.
On the other hand, if a debate takes place with all the party heads except Netanyahu, his absence might be interpreted as weakness, or a sign he had something to hide.
Advocates of a debate, such as Yoni Cohen-Iduv, a former international debate champion who has created a website and a Facebook page to advance the issue, argue that the format prevents politicians from skirting difficult questions. All participants must answer the questions posed to them. If they don’t they are penalized.
Still, we must not raise our expectations too high. There is little reason to think an experienced politician will be more candid or forthcoming during a debate than in an interview with a persistent journalist. Politicians know how to avoid answering questions when they want to.
And sometimes success in public debates is more a measure of a candidate’s charisma, body language, and public speaking abilities and has less to do with his or her abilities as a politician and leader.
Famously, the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first to be televised, was crucial to Kennedy’s slim victory. While Kennedy appeared on television tanned and relaxed, Nixon, who was ill and suffering from a knee injury, looked pale. Kennedy looked straight into the camera when he answered questions, while Nixon, who was less prepared for the TV medium, turned to the journalist asking the questions, which made it appear as though he was avoiding eye contact.
And things got worse when Nixon began sweating through his thick makeup.
Similarly, Peres’s bad performance in his 1996 debate with Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s bad performance against Mordechai in 1999, might have contributed to each man’s defeat in elections.
Sometimes debates end without any clear victor or without significantly fleshing out the positions of the candidates.
Too often debates deteriorate into recriminations.
Nevertheless, a public debate provides voters with a bit more information about the candidates. It gives them an opportunity to see how they perform under pressure and how they interact with the other candidates.
At the very least, a televised public debate among the heads of the leading parties is a major media event that tends to draw high TV ratings. For some it will be the only time they will get a chance to hear the candidates asked tough questions on the most pressing issues of the day.
A televised public debate might help overcome the apathy that too many Israeli voters feel as they prepare to vote in a superfluous election that should be taking place two years from now, not on March 17. If it achieves nothing else but that, a serious debate would be worthwhile.