Eight party leaders sat around a table in the Channel 2 studio Thursday night and offered Israelis a lesson in the limits of manipulation.
Much of the rhetoric was predictable. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman openly declared that United Arab List leader Ayman Odeh was a “fifth column” who “isn’t wanted here.” Shas’s Aryeh Deri and Yachad’s Eli Yishai bickered over which one was the true heir to their late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s legacy. And Meretz’s Zahava Gal-on and Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, representing the deep left and deep right of Israeli politics respectively, praised each other’s integrity and contrasted it to the wishy-washy 75% of the electorate in the middle.
But as the eight-way debate progressed, these preplanned rhetorical flourishes soon gave way to one of the most refreshingly candid discussions of Israeli politics, by some of the most talented practitioners of those politics, that Israelis have heard in a long time.
Election campaigns are dismally dishonest affairs, and for good reason. It is a simple, measurable fact, proven by sociologists and neurologists in countless controlled experiments, that human beings do not rationalize their way to their moral or political views. Rather, they feel and intuit these views from a variety of experiences and proclivities. This fact lies at the heart of the marketing industry and is the founding assumption underlying one of that industry’s offshoots, the political campaign.
Since voters don’t employ careful critical analysis in deciding who they will vote for, political campaigns don’t either in their attempts to sway that decision. Elections are about imagery, the manipulation of emotions and identities in an effort to instill the desired feelings and intuitions in the voter.
This reality is so obvious to everyone involved in political campaigning that no one bothers to speak about it. And, indeed, until Thursday, much of the punditry surrounding the 2015 election was made up of journalists’ efforts to understand the strategic rationale behind each party’s campaign, rather than to assess the substance of each party’s campaign promises or policy prescriptions.
For example, when Aryeh Deri sought to reignite the politics of Sephardi marginalization by accusing “sated, arrogant Israel” of racism, the response has been a discussion of the tactical benefits he might reap from this appeal, not an examination of the hard realities of social marginalization.
But that changed on Thursday. Time and again, the candidates, forced into a single room to debate in front of a national television audience, saw their carefully wrought rhetorical thrusts crumble in the face of a direct challenge from their competitors.
The empty slogans soon died away and were replaced by sharp jabs, awkward silences and pleas for support far more heartfelt than the honed statements at the start of the debate.
Liberman may have had the easiest time of it. He went after the only Arab on the panel, Ayman Odeh, at every opportunity, but was spared any attempted eviscerations by other candidates, most likely because his showing in the polls is so poor there is little interest in attempting to fight for his depleted electoral base.
It was left to Channel 2’s political reporter Amit Segal to ask Liberman the tough question. Despite his call “to defeat Hamas and institute a death penalty for terrorists, to talk less and do more,” very little of Yisrael Beytenu’s program over the past 16 years has actually been implemented, Segal noted. It was the only time in the debate when Liberman was forced to articulate his party’s successes — primarily the governance bill passed in the last Knesset — instead of simply attacking Odeh or reiterating, as he did again and again, his support for the death penalty.
Yet for all its rhetorical weakness — to Liberman’s declaration that Odeh was unwanted in Israel, Odeh had the ready and heartfelt response, “We’re going to get 15 seats. I’m very wanted in my homeland. I’m part of the landscape” — Liberman’s attack actually exposed Odeh’s vulnerable political underbelly.
Odeh began the evening with an optimistic appeal to interethnic solidarity.
“We offer hope. We are convinced we can reach peace, national and social equality, social justice. To that end, there has to be a democratic camp that will lead to a new place. You can’t make the change without the Arab population, but the Arab population isn’t enough. Let’s walk together,” he urged.
But minutes later, facing Liberman’s accusations that he was “a fifth column” that wanted “to destroy Israel from the inside,” he staunchly refused to repudiate the most egregious statements, including in support of terrorism, made by some of the more radical members of his diverse list.
Odeh is no firebrand, but he leads a list that includes, both as candidates and voters, staunch Palestinian nationalists in Balad, not to mention Islamic ideologues from the Ra’am faction. A secular socialist himself, he must tread carefully on the national stage in an effort to keep — and to mobilize — a deeply divided ideological base, and to sell previously disinterested Arab Israelis on the desirability of a strong, influential Arab political presence in the Knesset.
At one point in the debate, Odeh asked Shas’s Deri whether Shas and the United Arab List could work together to help those Deri calls Israel’s “transparent,” its poor and marginalized. His own electorate, Odeh suggested, was “even more transparent.”
Odeh’s turn to Deri was not accidental, and Deri’s careful response showed he understood what was at stake in their exchange. Shas has a surprising history of drawing votes from poorer sections of the Arab community, especially Bedouins in the Negev, whose interests, such as increased subsidies for large families, are identical to those of Shas’s ultra-Orthodox base. Odeh’s question, then, was an appeal to Shas-voting Arabs — though neither leader was comfortable openly acknowledging that they have overlapping constituencies.
Deri’s response neatly skirted the problem, and highlighted Odeh’s complicated position at the helm of an unwieldy cacophony of ideologues.
“I know the situation in the Arab sector,” Deri said, adding that he has visited Bedouin towns and Arab villages in the north. But Arab lawmakers, he accused, “have been more interested in the Palestinian issue than in the needs of Israeli Arabs. If that changes, we could have something to talk about.”
It was an elegant parry that did not break Deri’s overarching message: “Everyone here represents the middle class but forgets the poor. I tour the country, the real land of Israel. I see the closed factories, the simple workers that a sated Israel doesn’t care about.”
It was an impassioned and tactically brilliant performance, the Aryeh Deri whose political skills have long been the stuff of legend among political analysts.
But then Deri fell flat. Turning to Naftali Bennett, he demanded to know why Jewish Home had rejected the candidacy of soccer star Eli Ohana, a secular Sephardi cultural hero. Ohana, Deri charged, was kicked out of the right-wing religious party because of his eastern roots.
Ayelet Shaked, Jewish Home’s #3, had told party activists that she’d heard Ohana was “intelligent,” Deri reminded Bennett. “How long will we have to live with that arrogance, with being rated as ‘intelligent?’” he demanded.
“What kind of question is that?” Bennett retorted. “Ayelet Shaked is half-Iraqi. Number 2 on our list is [Morocco-born] Eli Ben-Dahan. I reject the question.”
Bennett’s answer was short and devastating — and as predictable as the sunrise. It left Deri visibly flustered and stuttering. The Shas leader had fallen into the same trap as the other candidates. He had brandished a talking point that was only really meant to be used in one-way communications, in a press release or Facebook video, not for a two-way conversation where it could be challenged with well-known facts.
Bennett had another success — again largely driven by his opponents’ clumsy attacks.
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on seemed to act as her own worst enemy in the debate, as she reiterated her campaign’s key message, that a vote for Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog could mean a vote for another Netanyahu government, since the two were willing to sit together in a unity coalition.
“I didn’t hear anyone (else) promise not to sit in a Netanyahu government. They’re cowards,” she said of the other leaders around the table.
That aggressive tone betrayed her when she directed a question to Bennett.
“How come you and your party think you’re some divine gift to the people?” she demanded. “You treat gays and lesbians as subhuman, you believe Arabs are second-class citizens, you allow yourselves to incite against the left. Where does this come from? You’re an extreme right-wing party.”
It was a clumsy and shrill exercise in name-calling that set Bennett up for an easy win.
“You can call me ‘fascist’ [and other epithets] all you want. For years you beat Netanyahu down by saying he had murdered Rabin. But I’m not from that generation. I love my country and I’m not going to apologize for it.” A few off-handed comments in support of increased employment opportunities for Arab women and Bennett’s deflection of Gal-on’s overwrought thrust was complete.
Even Yair Lapid, a former television news anchor, faced uncomfortable moments brought on by the unscripted nature of the debate. Early in the debate, he announced that well over 100,000 housing units are currently under construction throughout Israel because of his efforts as finance minister, and that such efforts will bring down the cost of housing. But Lapid fell into an uncomfortable silence when his centrist counterweight, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, retorted that only 7,300 actual sets of house keys were handed to actual home-buyers last year.
Kahlon, a vaunted former communications minister credited with reforming the Israeli cellular communications market, spent much of the debate talking about himself and railing against his former political home, Likud, which he said had “lost its compassion.”
But Kahlon was a member of government until 2013, while the housing crisis began in 2008, Naftali Bennett helpfully pointed out. Many of the economic problems at the top of the agenda in this election had worsened during Kahlon’s term as a cabinet minister. Bennett wasn’t accusing Kahlon of creating these problems, but of sharing in the responsibility of the political class for failing to solve them.
In the end, Kahlon’s most effective moment came in his final statement. Polls show he is the politician most favored by voters to be Israel’s next finance minister, a fact Kahlon relied upon in his final straightforward appeal: “If you want me to be finance minister, I need the political power to be finance minister.”
None of the candidates present could boast a clear-cut victory in the debate. But there was a victor, nonetheless, and three losers.
The entire country tuned in to watch their political leadership engage in a frank and wide-ranging debate that did not shrink from addressing the most acute economic problems and the most painful social and political ones.
But three people, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Isaac Herzog and United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, were not present. Their calculations are obvious: Litzman’s core constituency does not watch television — or at least does not admit in public that it does so. Netanyahu, the frontrunner for premier, feels his participation as an equal in a 10-way debate could only lessen his standing in the minds of the electorate. Herzog, who seeks to unseat Netanyahu, could not allow himself to be seen as one of nine while Netanyahu was absent. He, too, had to drop out.
But the result was not only that the two men were not represented, but that their parties, too, were left out of what may have been the most significant political broadcast of this election.
The victor, then, was the Israeli voter, who was given a comprehensive, unflinching treatment of national politics, including the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly.
- Israel Inside
- 2015 Israeli elections
- Yair Lapid
- Ayman Odeh
- Aryeh Deri
- Eli Yishai
- Moshe Kahlon
- Naftali Bennett
- Avigdor Liberman
- Meretz party
- Yesh Atid party
- Kulanu party
- Shas party
- Jewish Home party
- Yisrael Beytenu party
- Channel 2
- TV debate
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Isaac Herzog
- Zionist Union
- Likud party
- Yaakov Litzman
- UTJ United Torah Judaism party
- Ovadia Yosef
- Zehava Galon
- Ra'am party (United Arab List)