A major debate in Jerusalem two weeks before the elections ignores the most important issues facing the Jewish state.
A pre-election foreign policy debate was held today on the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Candidates in attendance were from four of the major Israeli parties, and in many ways, their performances mirrored their party's current position in the Israeli political spectrum. Naftali Bennett, the rising star of the Israeli conservative movement and leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish home) party, was confident, charismatic and straightforward. Tzachi Hanegbi, of Likud, was comfortable and affable, making a joke at one point about using his time on the podium to begin coalition negotiations with Bennett. Yaakov Peri, of Yesh Atid (there is a future) -- the new centrist party formed by Yair Lapid earlier this year -- was aloof and scattered, at times simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with Bennett and Hanegbi. Isaac Herzog, of Labor, provided a sound perspective, yet seemed desperate to stay relevant to the overall discussion.
Yet, in the course of the debate, where the candidates differed was as interesting as where they agreed. When asked what would be their most pressing foreign policy issue, both Peri and Herzog pointed to the Palestinian issue and restarting negotiations as a must. Herzog, cognizant of the growing demographic gap, went as far as to proclaim that the only way to keep a Jewish democracy afloat would be through establishing a neighboring Palestinian state. Peri presented a more pragmatic approach to the negotiations, criticizing Netanyahu for not building a professional working relationship with Abbas, and proclaiming his party as the only party prepared to re-establish that relationship. For Hanegbi of Likud, the most important issue on the table was Iran; indeed, Hanegbi asserted that no matter which issue the candidates thought was the most important, should they assume office, they would be forced to address Iran above all other issues anyway. Finally, Bennett declared that "the biggest issue is that the Palestinians are not the biggest issue," re-emphasizing his party's commitment to focusing on domestic issues such as integration of the Haredim and lowering the 20 billion dollar deficit.