Rock star election debate
Regardless of what you think about his party’s platform, Naftali Bennett is this election season’s rock star. At least that’s how it felt at the English-language debate sponsored by The Jerusalem Post and the AACI on Wednesday night.
Nearly all of the major parties sent English-speaking representatives – Likud Beitenu, Labor, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Shas, the Tzipi Livni Party, Strong Israel and Bennett’s Bayit HaYehudi were included. Notably absent was United Torah Judaism – perhaps they didn’t think they had much of a constituency among the Anglo community. Kadima – which may or may not break the threshold – was also missing.
There were a number of recognizable faces there to speak to the crowd of over 1,000 English-speakers: Isaac Herzog has been a Labor Party stalwart for years; former prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein has a similarly high profile at Likud. Yesh Atid sent its usual Anglo spokesperson, Dov Lipman, who at 17th on the list, isn’t personally expected to make it into the next Knesset but nevertheless spoke with great passion. Alon Tal was there for Tzipi Livni – he heads the Green Party list which hooked up with Livni, and he stressed environmental issues equally alongside Livni’s peace agenda.
But it was Bennett who attracted all the attention. When he entered, the many reporters and camera crews present practically stormed him, peppering him with questions all the way to the podium. When he had to leave midway through the debate (fellow English-speaker Jeremy Gimpel took his place), the cameras followed him out, much to the chagrin of Meretz’s Laura Wharton who was left mid-speech and media neglected.
Bennett’s status at the debate was not surprising given the meteoric rise in his party’s polling and the fact that he was the only top party leader to speak (Shas’s Menahem Shem Tov is definitely not in the Deri-Yishai-Attias triumvirate). Bennett was also among friends – he received the largest applause of any of the candidates from the largely Modern Orthodox Anglo audience – and in a space conducive to his religious message: the event was held not only at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue but in its sanctuary rather than in one of the wedding and conference ballrooms. Indeed, it was hard to tell who was or wasn’t religious as many attendees donned the white cloth kippot waiting at the door.
Beyond Bennett’s presence, the debate was actually useful: the candidates in general did a good job getting across where their parties stood on the issues and were at times remarkably candid. Strong Israel’s Arieh Eldad made it clear that he has only one purpose for being in the Knesset: preventing the creation of a Palestinian state.
There was of course too much sloganeering and a constant battle to stay within the five-minute time limit for the opening speeches, about which The Jerusalem Post’s Steve Linde, the evening’s moderator, was refreshingly unforgiving.
Was anyone’s mind changed during the evening? With a few days left to go until the election and an unprecedented quarter of the population still undecided, the stakes are certainly high. We came with our voting age kids (both first-timers), neither of whom had decided who was getting their thumbs up beforehand. I suspect Shabbat dinner tonight will serve as a continuation of many of the points raised on Wednesday night.
For more analysis of the evening, Jerusalem Post Managing Editor and Israelity blogger David Brinn has written about it here.