Intensity of verbal abuse stirs controversy at start of election campaign

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, January 21, 1999

JERUSALEM - Even at the quietest times, political debate and rhetoric in Israel are often nasty. Not surprisingly, the onset of a new national election campaign has already taken such discourse to more volatile levels - and the country doesn't even go the polls for another four months!

In such a highly politicized, divided nation, where little is laid back in the political sphere except the dress code at the Knesset, the verbal crossfire can be deadly. Literally. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, after many had denounced him as a traitor endangering Israel's security, made tough talk a particularly loaded issue.

Incitement is still very much in the news. Last week, Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon voiced alarm over the intensity of verbal abuse at the start of the election campaign. "If we carry on like this," said Tichon, "who knows what might happen in the future?"

Tichon was reacting to a recent spate of violent verbal threats against prime ministerial candidates Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. The candidates themselves didn't help matters much by uttering harsh, offensive denunciations of each other. Most controversial was Shahak's comment that "Netanyahu is a danger to Israel and is leading us to disaster!"

Them fighting words. Unfortunately, such invective is not confined to the political arena. To be sure, the general level and tone of dialogue in this country are anything but dignified. Israelis have a great deal to learn about how to talk to one another. When they open their mouths, too often it's up front, loud, rapid-fire, in your face, combative, strident, along with lots of histrionics. Nothing plays well like an argument in Israel, and daily life here is full of it, especially where politics is concerned.

Recently on the Erev Hadash (New Evening) TV program, Likud Cabinet Minister Yehoshua Matza and Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin discussed Lipkin-Shahak's announcement of his candidacy for prime minister earlier that day at a press conference. Both men strongly criticized Lipkin-Shahak for different reasons, before squaring off against each other and noisily debating the respective records of the Netanyahu and Rabin/Peres governments.

Tempers flared. Sitting next to each other in the studio, Matza and Beilin took off their verbal gloves for a no-holds-barred verbal slugfest over whose party and leader constitute a greater danger for Israel's future. The host was hard-pressed to get a word in edgewise.

All year round, even when there is no election campaign, venom flows daily in the media on the many current affairs programs in which politicians, pundits and assorted other guests confront each other over the latest headlines. Monday nights are especially rambunctious. That's when each of the two main television channels devotes 90 minutes of prime time to lively roundtable political talk shows.

Last week, on Channel 1's Politica, also broadcast live on radio, host Ya'acov Achimeir convened a distinguished panel of MKs and professors. Their topic: Where does freedom of expression end and incitement begin. As is often the case, there was little consensus, this time especially over Shahak's earlier statement about Netanyahu.

At the same time on Channel 2's It's All Political, host Dan Margalit and his permanent panelists and various Labor and Likud MKs reviewed the opening salvos in the parties' highly aggressive ad campaigns. True to form, the initial sense of decorum quickly gave way to a cacophony of dispute, this time over which party was more guilty of hate-filled rhetoric.

Both programs remind me of a similar show on French television called Droit de Réponse," that was extremely popular when I lived in Paris in the 1980s. One time I was invited to take part in the show. I was asked to be at the studio an hour before broadcast. Within minutes of my arrival, the production staff made sure to offer all participants large glasses of wine or liquor.

The objective was clear: to loosen tongues and minimize inhibitions ahead of showtime. It worked like a charm, making for a heated, animated debate. It's a safe bet that no such drinks are needed for guests and panelists appearing on Politica or It's All Political.

Many people I know can't stand these programs because of the inevitable screaming and mud slinging. I may not savor the mean-spiritedness that pervades many of the discussions, but I appreciate the engaged, usually informed discussions of the issues of the day affecting Israeli society. More disconcerting is that I often relate to both sides of the debate.

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