I've Been Begin, I've Been Netanyahu

This morning, after the first evening of televised campaign spots, the bon ton will only grow stronger, and the national declaming choir will sound the requiem for the broadcast: "Oh, how dull and substandard it was, and who do they think they're trying to fool, and who is even influenced by these imbecilic spots. No more, it was the first and last time, and we won't be wasting out precious time again." And this evening, wise men and fools alike will return to the television, "as a dog returns to his vomit."

This morning will also bring a growing clamor for a debate between the major candidates. Only a debate that wrangles with fundamental problems - only that will enlighten us, who are walking in darkness. And the staunch demand reminds its twin sister: if there is a leadership here, let it appear at once, give interviews, and speak to us on the various talk shows and current affairs programs. And thus they appear, one after another, and there is not doubt that at the end of an in-depth interview with Yair Lapid, for example, everything is more clear and lucid; suddenly we see the light. It's okay to reveal now the nature of those debates, which are just one big show, and like every show this one too is staged from the moment the curtain goes up to its close, and the text is memorized by heart.

In theory the questions are kept under wraps, and in practice they are foreknown. The neutral interviewer composes them but only ostensibly, for the "topics" are agreed upon in advance, and what are topics if not the questions: one question on "the political topic" and a second question on "the security topic" and a third on "the socioeconomic topic." And each of the debaters will conclude with his "personal credo." What is there left to ask if the answers are cooked and packaged ahead of time, and are chewed ad nauseam in rehearsal? If a debate takes place this time, it will also address with organized spontaneity the "corruption topic."

I never participated in a debate, but I have prepped others. Before every battle of the behemoths, the gladiators shut themselves up in a closed and well-guarded television studio and begin to practice. Someone has to serve as a punching bag, and I, heaven help me, was that someone. I am the person who was Menachem Begin and was Benjamin Netanyahu, who was given the task of wrestling with those greater than him, with Yitzhak Rabin in his day and with Shimon Peres in his.

The wrestling match is filmed, taped, and after each round you stop, play the video tape forward and backward, point out mistakes and try to correct them. Sometimes they were sharp-edged and fierce, these "dry runs," and for me this was a rare opportunity to say to my opponent-colleague everything I ever thought about them and never dared say; as Begin for an hour, as Netanyahu for an evening, I could say it all. Peres became flustered one time in the heat of the debate between us, grew angry, and made clear to me that he does not like being spoken to in that manner. I had to remind him that we were at the dress rehearsal, and that things might be much worse in the live performance; and indeed they were.

In 1996, after Rabin's assassination, the election results seemed a cinch: how can you lose such elections - and Peres did the impossible. In those days I was no longer a member of the Labor Party, but I was called upon to rally around the flag as a coach. They apparently assumed at Labor campaign headquarters that I have the requisite degree of evil, that I have a bellyful of complaints, and that I'll give a fight. The rehearsals were successful, Netanyahu was defeated, again and again he was knocked down, and even knocked out sometimes.

The debate itself, you will recall, was less successful - Netanyahu ate Peres for breakfast - and that was enough for his close victory in the elections. What happened here? Did Netanyahu's wisdom beat out Peres' wisdom? Did the brief contest between them prove that Netanyahu is more suitable to be prime minister? Not in the least: Bibi simply looked younger - what a surprise - more eager, and, as as he is wont to do, let his fingers do the walking, and also his hands. His body language was captivating, whereas Peres' body language was subjugated; and body language says a lot on television and says nothing in reality. The four years that followed only underscored that nothing.

What our familiarity with the front-runners, going back many years, hasn't done, an hour-long debate won't manage to do. The public knows all three very well, and that is precisely the problem - theirs, and mostly ours. It will not be resolved on the screen in masquerade.