Candidates go head to head on Israel’s future — and in English, too
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Candidates go head to head on Israel’s future — and in English, too

Clockwise, from top left, Michael Oren, Ayelet Shaked,

Clockwise, from top left: Michael Oren, Ayelet Shaked, Hilik Bar, Tamar Zandberg and Yaakov Peri.

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog won’t be debating each other ahead of Israel’s March election, but English speakers in Tel Aviv who packed an event hall here got the next best thing: Candidates from five parties came out for a panel-style discussion on topics ranging from negotiations with the Palestinians to Iran nuclear policy to strengthening U.S.-Israel relations. (All the major parties were represented except for Netanyahu’s Likud, whose candidate arrived for the debate but had to leave before it began to attend a family event.)

These are the candidates who appeared:

Ayelet Shaked, Jewish Home

The candidate and her party: Shaked is a rising star in Jewish Home, a right-wing, religious Zionist party. At first blush Shaked, a secular Tel Aviv resident, would seem an odd fit in Jewish Home. But she has proved popular, ranking third after party chair Naftali Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel on the party’s election slate. She has also been a vocal presence in Knesset debates and in the media — weighing in on relations with the Palestinians and Israeli policy toward African migrants — since becoming a lawmaker in 2013.

Policy positions: Jewish Home believes that achieving a two-state solution through Israeli-Palestinian talks and territorial compromise is a losing proposition. Instead, the party wants Israel to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, although Shaked acknowledged during the debate that the plan was “not realistic” in the short term. The party supports Netanyahu’s hard-line stance against Iran’s nuclear program.

What she said: “We should manage the conflict and not give up on any centimeter of land. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than any other alternative.”

 Michael Oren, Kulanu

The candidate and his party: Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, is running with the new centrist party Kulanu, ranking fourth on its slate. While the party is focused on lowering Israel’s cost of living, Oren is looking at improving Israel’s international relations. The New York native will likely be the next Knesset’s only American-born lawmaker.

Policy positions: Oren contends that the peace process has failed, but that Israel should leave the door open for future talks. In the meantime, he says, Israel should improve conditions on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank. Oren insists that Israel must tend better to U.S. relations and has called on Netanyahu to cancel his March speech before Congress that has stirred controversy. The prime minister has been criticized for agreeing to speak stateside two weeks before the Israeli elections and not following protocol by failing to check with President Barack Obama.

What he said: “I’ve racked up more hours with Obama than any Israeli. … Irrespective of the difference between us, he is the elected representative of our most important ally in the world, and we have to learn to manage this relationship.”

Yaakov Peri, Yesh Atid

The candidate and his party: Peri, who is fifth on the centrist Yesh Atid slate, is a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency and served as science and technology minister until last year. Yesh Atid is the Knesset’s largest party but is middling in the polls. In this campaign, the party has targeted domestic issues like fighting government corruption and working on economic reform.

Policy positions: Yesh Atid contends that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have failed and has proposed a regional conference with willing Arab nations like Egypt and Jordan to advance Israeli-Palestinian (and broader Middle East) peace. Peri opposes Netanyahu’s scheduled March speech before the U.S. Congress.

What he said: “Those countries are ready to sit with Israel. To reach a settlement is possible, and to [have] bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians is possible inside this regional conference.”

Hilik Bar, Zionist Union (Labor-Hatnuah)

The candidate and his party: Bar is the secretary-general of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, which combined with the centrist Hatnuah in December to form the Zionist Union. Bar, seventh on the Zionist Union slate, is a vocal advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He chairs the Knesset caucuses for promoting a two-state solution and strengthening Israeli-European relations. Tied with Likud in the polls, Zionist Union has pledged to improve Israel’s relations with its allies.

Policy positions: Bar says Israel needs to achieve a two-state-solution because the alternative is either apartheid or a binational state with the Palestinians. He admits that negotiations would be difficult, but says a Zionist Union government would push hard for a peace accord. While his party supported Netanyahu’s stance on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Bar believes the congressional speech by the prime minister is not worth harming U.S.-Israel relations.

What he said: “A two-state solution is the only possible and viable solution for a true Zionist — a respectable divorce, and not a Catholic marriage with them.”

Tamar Zandberg, Meretz 

The candidate and her party: Zandberg, a former Tel Aviv city councilwoman and fifth on the Meretz slate, is an assertive advocate of women’s rights and religion-state separation in the Knesset. Her left-wing Meretz party has seen its poll position dip as Zionist Union’s has risen. To bounce back, Meretz is positioning itself as the “real left” and pledging to oppose any right-wing government.

Policy positions: Zandberg was more optimistic than her fellow candidates regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace. She says the blueprint for a peace treaty is well known and accepted internationally, and that a left-wing government could achieve a peace treaty. Meretz is dovish on security issues, and Zandberg opposes Netanyahu’s March speech in Washington.

What she said: “If this government and the ones before it were very clear about their right-wing ideology in all aspects, the next one should be very clear in its left-wing ideology.”