Is Israel's Election Culture Changing?

Last week's election debate may not have impacted the polls significantly, but it could signal a real shift in the way Israel does politics.

Gedalyah Reback , | updated: 12:03

Candidates prepare to duke it out ahead of Channel 2 election debate
Candidates prepare to duke it out ahead of Channel 2 election debate
Channel 2/Flash 90

Israel’s election culture is changing. Or is it?

Last week, Israel held its first televised debate since 1999. Even though Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Herzog avoided the event, some see this as just another sign of Israeli politics opening up.

With so many new political parties and more scrutiny of parties’ platforms, are we in a Golden Age of politics?

Debating Debates

According to Professor Shmuel Sandler, expert on Israeli electoral politics and US-Israel relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the debate was something special to watch - and revealed Netanyahu's own bitter experience with debates.

“It was new. The last one was in 1999 with Binyamin Netanyahu, and even then Ehud Barak avoided the event. Those who did participate seemed to only hurt each other. And of course, Barak won that year.”

“This time around, Buji (Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog) has challenged Bibi. But Bibi wants the ‘tiebreaker’ to be the speech (before Congress). But he may reconsider the debate if he finds himself behind in the polls when he returns from Washington.”

Of the debate itself, there is the possibility that the candidates basically drowned each other out. It might have reminded an American of a debate where as many as 10 candidates could be on stage. But there was certainly a lot more diversity at this event.

But overall, Sandler thought the debate was productive. There were some clear beneficiaries and candidates who might have lost out. He felt that Avigdor Lieberman performed poorly in the exchanges he had, while others did well.

“Aryeh Deri at first focused on his rival Eli Yishai, but then switched to Lapid, understanding it’s easier to draw votes if you can focus your voters on someone they don’t like. Bennett also did well.”

Swaying Voters

But will this debate make a major difference? Sandler felt that the most the parties might move in the polls as a result would be just one or two seats. In other words, it might be hard to notice any effect with so many polls projecting so many different results already. He also felt that its significance was diluted by the emerging generation gap with voters.

“The truth is it won’t make a big difference for young voters who use new media more than television. This debate was really more for the older generation.”

Even with just two weeks to go, there is still a chance it might only be the first debate of the season. The Prime Minister may still accept a challenge from Herzog for a separate, one-on-one debate. Again, any impact on polls for Likud and the Labor-Hatnua list would be indirect.

“People usually switch within (right or left) camps, not from one side of the spectrum to the other. The effect we could see is movement into the center. Buji might be effective enough to convince Likud voters to shift toward Kahlon (Kulanu), or Netanyahu pulls some of Herzog’s supporters over to Yesh Atid. Voters may move into the center or from the center to the left or the right.”

Netanyahu’s Speech before Congress

Americans might be watching Israel’s election more than they have in the past in the wake of Netanyahu’s upcoming controversial speech to Congress.

Sandler sees it as part of Netanyahu’s election strategy, whether he planned it that way or not. But he cannot imagine the speech itself would really impact negotiations with Iran. Any impact comes from the controversy it has created.

What is critical at this juncture is that Netanyahu’s insertion into the negotiations despite the Obama Administration’s best efforts has stopped additional concessions, along with the added pressure from Congress (whose bipartisan bills have made that pressure particularly acute).

“What I think might be is that they cannot ignore this issue. What Bibi has done is succeeded in putting his objections on the agenda. If they were ready to offer more concessions to Iran, they won’t now.”

When asked if there was a bit of a “good-cop-bad-cop-routine” going on between Israel and the US toward Iran, he said that maybe there was in the past. However, he could not imagine it was a routine the White House still wanted.

“At this point Kerry and Obama don’t want that. They want a deal.”