'Bibi, Look Me in the Eye' and Other Israeli Pointers for the Obama-Romney Debates

Israel gave up on televised debates after most incumbents concluded that they have little to gain and the world to lose from the rhetorical duel with their rivals.

The all-time best-ever killer zinger in an Israeli political debate was delivered in the 1999 election campaign, and it demolished then first-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Bibi, look me in the eye,” his rival said mockingly, and when Netanyahu would not or could not rise up to the challenge, the elections were over, more or less, and Bibi’s days were numbered.

The sheer lethality of that encounter is probably one of the main reasons why the 1999 debate was the last one ever held in Israeli election campaigns. Ever since then, the leading candidates have refused to take part in debates, reasoning that they have little to gain, much to fear and the world to lose if they do.

The irony is that the main beneficiary of Netanyahu’s meltdown, Ehud Barak, wasn’t even in the studio at the time. Barak had wisely refused to participate in a three way debate with Netanyahu and with the soon-to-be disgraced leader of the Centre Party, Itzik Mordechai.

In the ensuing one on one encounter between Netanyahu and his former defense minister Mordechai, the latter’s personal, in your face, take no prisoners assault rattled Netanyahu and undermined his image as the cool and savvy political pro. Mordechai’s ruthless performance didn’t do him much good, but it destroyed Netanyahu and paved the way to a resounding Barak victory.

The issue at hand, it emerged later, was Netanyahu’s then-secret overtures towards Syrian President Hafez Assad and his offer, conveyed through his confidante Ronald Lauder, to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. After Netanyahu had boasted that “we stopped the lunatic withdrawal to the 1967 borders” and “I have made no concessions on cardinal issues of security” Mordechai gazed at him with a withering smile, gestured with his finger towards his eye and said “I know your outbursts and they won’t do you any good: look me in the eye and tell me what you are about.”

Neither the moderator nor the public had any idea what Mordechai was talking about, but Netanyahu’s sweaty brow, dry lips, darting eyes and constant fidgeting with his hands convinced the viewing audience that he had been caught red-handed at something, though it wasn’t completely clear exactly what. What was obvious, though, was that his fate was sealed.

It was a classic case of he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, because Netanyahu’s agitated state reminded Israelis most of all of Shimon Peres’ similarly distraught performance in the 1996 debate, after Netanyahu, then the up and coming challenger, had unnerved and flustered him with his unconventional debate tactics.

After a sleepless night, a terrible make up job and hours of futile practice that had left him frustrated and cranky, Peres was no match for the young and energetic Netanyahu, a veteran of thousands of hours of interviews in both American and Israeli media.

This time it was Peres who refused to acknowledge Netanyahu or look him in the eye and who insisted on talking in the royal “we,” while his young rival looked directly at the camera and at his audience while pressing home his devastating rebuke of Peres, “it doesn’t matter what you say, because in practice you are dividing Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu remained cool and confident even when his interviewer asked him about such sensitive issues as his marital infidelities and his decision to return to the US after his army service and to change his name to “Ben Nitay,” while Peres appeared to snap and growl even at the most innocuous queries.  

It was the “great equalizer” for Netanyahu, as it is for any challenger, as it may very well be for Mitt Romney when he takes to the podium in the first presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday night. And given that the margin of Netanyahu’s shock victory in the 1996 poll, only seven months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was only 14,000 votes, there can be no doubt that it was the debate, among other factors, that made the difference.

Ironically, the same “equalizing” effect had undermined Peres a full 20 years earlier as well, in the first televised debate ever held in Israel, during the 1977 elections. The beneficiary then was Netanyahu’s predecessor, Likud leader Menachem Begin, hitherto the perennial loser of eight Israeli elections and a man who was still defined in the public’s mind by his pre-state underground activities, which his rivals described as terror.

Begin’s appearance on the same stage as Peres immediately recast him as a legitimate contender for the throne, while his rhetorical flourishes turned out to be as mesmerizing for his television audience as they had been for several decades for his adulating admirers in  town squares and mass political rallies.

Four years later, in the 1981 elections, with Begin now the incumbent and Peres the challenger, the two sides battled to what was widely considered to be a draw, but the popular June 7 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak probably clinched the elections for an already ailing Begin, despite his government’s unpopular policies in many other areas.

The next three debates – in 1984, 1988 and 1992 – included two more with Peres and one with Rabin on the Labor side and Yitzhak Shamir for the Likud. Though the tough Shamir was a man of many admirable qualities, he was a lackluster speaker, to put it mildly, and was thus successful in tranquilizing these debates and rendering them absolutely unremarkable and unmemorable in the public’s mind and, subsequently, of little effect in the ensuing elections.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who campaigned in 2001 and 2003 on the original notion that the less he said the better, refused to participate in debates altogether and his successors have followed in his path.  Thus, after abandoning its short experiment in personal elections in the late 1990’s and with Israel’s political landscape increasingly fractured, it was becoming increasingly difficult, in any case, to determine which candidates, in fact, should be allowed to take part in such debates. For now, at least, this direct duel between opposing viewpoints, almost a convention of the constitution in the US, is probably extinct as far as Israel is concerned.

But the Golden Rule of Israel’s two decades of experience with televised debates, if reader Barack Obama is interested, is relatively clear and simple: if you are the incumbent, and you are lucky, the best you can hope for is a tie with your challenger. And even then, it’s better if you have a bombed nuclear reactor or something similar – an assassination of Bin Laden, perhaps – notched on your belt in advance.

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