Media Comment: Who is afraid of debates?

The need to justify your actions in previous governments, or to explain why your candidacy should be taken seriously before a mass audience, does not exist in Israel, but it is sorely needed.

A blind man trains to vote with OrCam, a device that offers aid for the visually impaired  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A blind man trains to vote with OrCam, a device that offers aid for the visually impaired
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
In the election campaign of 1999, then-candidate Ehud Barak refused to publicly engage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a televised debate. Barak is today a founding father of the Democratic Union. He can credit himself that this is perhaps his only significant contribution to Israel’s democratic system. At that time, one of the major reasons underlying Netanyahu’s defeat and Barak’s victory was the fact that Netanyahu did engage famously in a debate, moderated by Nissim Mishal, with then-leader of the now defunct Center Party Yitzhak Mordechai – and lost. Who can forget the classic line, “Bibi, look me in the eyes”?
It was Israel’s great democrat, Ariel Sharon, who did away with the debate system as well as prime ministerial press conferences. Netanyahu, his ardent student, followed in his ways – and since then, Israel’s elections are not marred by political debates. The need to justify your actions in previous governments, or to explain why your candidacy should be taken seriously before a mass audience, does not exist in Israel, but it is sorely needed.
Consider the competition for who will occupy the Prime Minister’s Office between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and the Likud’s incumbent, Netanyahu. Gantz took his party to visit the South and made some bombastic statements about how he would not allow the present situation in Gaza to continue. Instead of dealing with show business, he should have challenged Netanyahu to a debate and a thorough public discussion of the Likud Party’s policies with regards to the war against Hamas.
But for some reason, Gantz refrains from doing this. Is he afraid that Netanyahu, the well-polished speaker, will beat him? How could he possibly do this if his performance as prime minister is the dismal failure described by all Blue White politicians?
But it is not only the Prime Minister’s Office that should be debated. The defense portfolio is arguably second only to the Prime Minister’s Office – and sometimes even more important, as evidenced by Sharon during the First Lebanon War. The September elections have many candidates vying for this job, whether it be Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon (Blue and White), Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White), Amir Peretz (Labor-Gesher), Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) or Naftali Bennett (Yamina). It is no secret that Israel’s defense policy is second to none in establishing Israel’s leading party. It is not an accident that the Blue and White Party is led by three former IDF chiefs of staff, one of whom was also a defense minister.
The topics for such a debate are almost self-evident – Israel’s strategy versus Hamas in the South, Hezbollah in the North, Syria and Iran in the Northeast, as well as resurgent terrorism in Judea and Samaria. The present government is not immune from public criticism, whether by the parents of citizens held hostage or soldiers who fell in action in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s Schalit deal has not resulted in quiet; too many of the murderers released in that deal promptly returned to terrorist activities against Israel. Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi are also under fire for their policies with regards to Gaza and the lack of military action there when they were in charge, as well as Ya’alon’s active participation in preparing the IDF for the disastrous withdrawal from Gaza, which underlies much of our problems today. These issues and many more should be discussed, and tough questions asked. The public deserves to know more and to be exposed to the thoughts and plans of the candidates.
ISRAEL’S FINANCE Ministry is of utmost importance in determining our future. The finance minister can block even the initiatives of the prime minister. The Finance Ministry has almost a stranglehold on any governmental activities. As in Ecclesiastes 10:19, “money is the answer to everything.” Today’s parties have a few former finance ministers who would vie for the job, such as Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Yair Lapid (Blue and White), Liberman and incumbent Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu). Naftali Bennett has not hidden his bid to become the next finance minister. Kahlon may boast of creating a huge deficit; Liberman claims he would increase the pension level for the elderly; and Israel’s leftist parties claim that Israel has become a greedy capitalist country without the needed social structures that would support the poor and downtrodden. How would these be created when the country faces a huge deficit?
Is it really true that the capitalist system is Israel’s downfall, or as claimed by the Right, capitalism has proven itself, turning Israel into an economic powerhouse? They would also claim that even today, the socialist practices in place, such as the right to strike by workers in critical governmental sectors, are an impediment towards improving the situation of the elderly, the periphery, etc.
Let us also not forget the Education Ministry, which lies at the heart of Israel’s struggle between secularism and Judaism. The ministry has the largest of all governmental budgets barring the Defense Ministry. In recent years, it has been under control of the Likud (Gideon Sa’ar), Bayit Yehudi (Bennett) and now Yamina (Rafi Peretz). The problems faced by the next education minister are huge, including improving the level of education in the Arab and haredi sectors, the crisis in Israel’s higher education system, the quality of teachers, their working conditions and salaries, to name a few. These issues touch the homes of practically all citizens. Are they not worthy of public debate? 
Finally, the Justice Ministry and Israel’s future as a democratic state is one of the hottest topics that divide Left and Right. The former claims that the present government is step-by-step destroying Israel’s democracy; the latter notes that the judiciary and the Justice Ministry are dictatorial and have taken into their hands the running of this country. Former justice minister and leader of Yamina Ayelet Shaked is in the forefront of this silent debate.
Naively, one might think that those who are vying for positions of influence and who trust their abilities would especially lead the call for public debates, but they do not do so. Presumably, their political advisers are afraid. But the one power that could change the situation is strikingly silent – Israel’s media. Isn’t it in the interest of the media to have debates? Would they not bring in higher ratings? Is it not the media’s job to keep the public informed? Israel’s media has vast experience in creating and enforcing agendas: in the secular-religious divide, the status of illegal infiltrators and much more.
The media here is too quiet. The politicians vying to be elected are not challenged to face the public. To paraphrase The Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti, the old media sought to inform whereas the new conception is that the reader is but ripe for manipulation. Could it be that the central reason for this undemocratic state of affairs is that the media does not want debates since they would take away the abilities of the media stars to promote their own political agendas?
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (