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Netanyahu-Mordechai debate heralds Israeli election season

JERUSALEM, April 14 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Center Party challenger Yitzhak Mordechai faced off this week in the first televised debate between candidates for prime minister in Israel’s upcoming elections. However, the Israeli premier saved his sharpest barbs for Labor leader Ehud Barak, who had refused to participate, saying that such exchanges should take place only within the framework of the organized election campaign. Netanyahu and Mordechai both appeared on a current affairs interview program after the head of the electoral commission deemed that the debate could take place on the condition that neither of the candidates engaged in election campaigning. Nevertheless, the host of the program, Nissim Mishal, interjected several times to caution the candidates against campaigning. The debate was instructive in that it indicated the tone and shape of the candidates’ campaigns as the election season heats up in advance of the May 17 elections. Throughout the program, Netanyahu presented the upcoming elections as a choice between himself, whom he portrayed as providing strong leadership with security and reciprocity, and the “left-wing concessions” of Ehud Barak. At the same time, he sought to dismiss Mordechai, his former defense minister, as motivated by personal interest and head of a party “which has no direction” and which Netanyahu termed “a medley of losers who decided to pool together.” Mordechai, meanwhile, repeatedly challenged Netanyahu, portraying him as a leader who was not trustworthy, who had “lost the faith of his own ministers, of the people” and whose impulsive policies had “endangered the State of Israel.” Mordechai said that if there was any single achievement under the Netanyahu government, it was in the area of security, under Mordechai’s two-and-a-half year tenure holding the defense portfolio. At points during the debate, sparring between the two became heated, with each interrupting the other with accusations and counterattacks. Pressed by Netanyahu to define the direction of the Center Party, Mordechai retorted “to bring this leadership down.” On specific points of policy, neither candidate shed much more light on previously stated positions. Asked how Israel would respond to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Palestinians, Netanyahu confirmed that extending Israeli law over certain territories was under consideration. For his part, Mordechai instead highlighted that through his political contacts with all the involved parties, including the Americans, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat was aware that it was not in his interest to do so. Without elaborating, Mordechai confirmed that he would consider territorial concessions on the Golan Heights within the framework of a peace accord with Syria. Netanyahu, for his part, responded that he would not give Syrian President Hafez Assad “what Barak would” but that he would enter negotiations with the Syrians.