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Bibi Backers Boo Barak

February 2, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A televised interview with two of Israel’s top candidates for prime minister descended into a catcalling shouting match after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyalists turned on the opposition candidate.

Was it political hooliganism, as Labor leader Ehud Barak maintained Tuesday _ or, as Netanyahu claimed, a nod to his leadership abilities?

The shenanigans Monday evening on the ``Politika″ talk show dominated headlines and morning-after talk Tuesday on Israeli radio stations. It also raised fears the political atmosphere in Israel is still rife with violence 3 1/2 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an opponent of his land-for-peace policies.

``Disgrace in the Studio,″ headlined the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot.

``What happened there is not fitting for a democracy or for a broadcast authority,″ Barak told Israel Radio.

Uri Porath, director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and a Netanyahu appointee, said he would consider banning studio audiences from political talk shows until after the May 17 elections.

Yaakov Ahimeir, the veteran television reporter who moderated the show, said he could barely conduct his interview with Barak between the shouts and hisses of Netanyahu supporters in the crowd.

``Inside the television studio, there was an extreme sense of violence,″ he said.

According to ``Politika″ producers, the bulk of the boos came from an organized group of Netanyahu backers who heckled simultaneously, sometimes even spitting. Their noise drowned out Barak’s attempts to respond.

Flustered, Ahimeir pleaded for quiet and respect for Barak.

In contrast, Netanyahu’s reception had been warm. He left the studio amid boos prompted by Ahimeir’s announcement that Barak was up next.

Netanyahu said he condemned political violence _ but insisted Monday’s outbursts were simply a demonstration of the people’s support for him.

``These programs are easily controlled _ you just need to learn how to handle them,″ Netanyahu told Israel Radio. ``I think there are large sections of the population who feel that I don’t get impartial treatment by the press.″

Netanyahu accused Barak of ``ruthless hysteria″ and questioned the former military chief’s ability to lead if he could not even control a television audience.

Labor backers in the audience said they heard cries of ``Traitor!″ and feared an outbreak of violence during the program.

The Likud has faced criticism in the past for the boisterousness of its supporters. During elections in 1981, Likud backers blocked then-opposition leader Shimon Peres from campaigning in some towns and even turned up at Labor rallies brandishing knives.

After Rabin’s assassination, Labor leaders accused Netanyahu of failing to contain the violent rhetoric of Likud followers, who compared Rabin to Hitler and called for his death.

Carmi Gillon, who headed Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency at the time of Rabin’s assassination, said Tuesday he believed more political violence was possible.

``The danger lies not in those who do the shouting ... but in fringe elements who are influenced by them,″ he told Israel’s army radio.

Netanyahu said Barak needs to display more ``humor.″

``If an audience shouts, perhaps its not good because you can’t hear the person speak, but it’s not violence,″ Netanyahu spokesman Aviv Bushinsky told Israel Radio.

Calev Ben-David, a TV columnist for The Jerusalem Post, said audiences need to be kept out of the studio. ``It’s like combining `Meet the Press’ with `The Jerry Springer Show,‴ he said.

Ahimeir said the audience spices up the show, but conceded his experience Monday night had him shaken.

``Maybe the country needs a national psychiatrist to analyze (its) soul,″ he said.

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