Knesset candidates trade jabs in first-ever TV debate

Economic issues dominate as front-runners Netanyahu and Herzog, Iran’s nuclear program notably absent

Israeli political party leaders gather for a televised debate at Channel 2 studios in Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, on February 26, 2015. (screen capture: Channel 2 News)
Israeli political party leaders gather for a televised debate at Channel 2 studios in Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, on February 26, 2015. (screen capture: Channel 2 News)

Eight of the 11 key political party leaders vying for the Knesset swapped blows and stumped for votes in the first-ever debate of its kind  in Israel Thursday.

The debate, broadcast on Channel 2 after being taped earlier in the day, did not include the two main prime ministerial hopefuls,  Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who both chose to stay away, along with ultra-Orthodox UTJ party leader Yaakov Litzman.

Economics and the peace process dominated the often-heated discussion as the smaller parties vied for the political middle ground and undecided votes. (The Times of Israel live-blogged the debate as it progressed.)

Pundits extolled Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on’s performances in the eight-way debate, while Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, shone less brightly.

Soft-spoken United Arab List leader Ayman Odeh made an inaugural major appearance on national television, which provided Israel’s Arab minority a podium on the national stage. His party is heading for some 12 seats, according to most polls.

The hot election topics — the cost of living; and the Palestinian peace process — were the issues at the fore, while Iran’s nuclear weapons program earned nearly no mentions.

Discussion of subjects such as ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces and the role of Arabs in Israeli society was punctuated by vicious jabs by candidates at their rivals.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid butted heads with Shas leader Aryeh Deri over ultra-Orthodox unemployment, saying it wasn’t fair that the middle class was paying so that the religious could study and not serve in the military.

Liberman attacked Odeh for condemning Arabs who perform national service and asked him why he’s running for the Knesset instead of living in the Palestinian territories.

“You define yourself as a Palestinian. Go to Abu Mazen,” Liberman said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Anchor Yonit Levy, the moderator, interjected, pointing out that Odeh is an Israeli citizen.

Gal-on intimated that Bennett and the radical right-wing in the country were responsible for the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Don’t you dare accuse me of the Rabin assassination,” Bennett shot back.

He dismissed Shas party leader Aryeh Deri’s charge that the majority Ashkenazi Jewish Home party was trying to play the race card by bringing in Sephardi ex-soccer player Eli Ohana (who later quit). “We’re all Jews,” he said.

Odeh, the only non-Jew in the room, responded: “You say we are all Jews — I say we are all human.”

Israelis will head to polls on March 17.

The debate was the first of its kind to feature party leaders from across the spectrum.

The last televised debate between prime ministerial candidates took place in 1996, between Netanyahu and then-prime minister Shimon Peres.

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