Campaign commercials went on air Tuesday in keeping with Israeli law, which restricts such advertising to the weeks immediately preceding an election.
The ads, broadcast consecutively for over an hour on the main TV channels, provided mostly bombast and sloganeering, as well as some entertainment. A few highlights:
Israel’s ruling party wants you to know that it is strong; that its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is strong; and that if you vote for Likud, Israel will be strong. The word strong – hazak – in various forms, came up like a subconscious verbal tic no less than seven times in just over two minutes during one medley of Likud TV ads Tuesday night.
But not only is Netanyahu strong, he also speaks English. One ad showed him in Congress, explaining to America that “3,000 years ago King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem,” and that “When we say ‘never again,’ we mean ‘never again.’” There was much applause.
Viewers were shown a picture of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughing alongside Israel’s recently resigned foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman — doubtless the Israeli diplomat with the lowest international popularity rating in history, whose ties with the US administration during his term were cool to nonexistent. There were pictures of Netanyahu in the UN, and with Angela Merkel of Germany and other world leaders. A recently arrived alien watching the Likud ads will conclude that Israel’s international relations have never been better.
“When Netanyahu speaks,” viewers are informed, “the world listens.”
Tuesday’s TV ads assumed a more statesmanlike tone than one Likud has been running on the internet, an internet spoof which looks like it was conceived and executed by ill-tempered nine-year-olds. In it, the leaders of the center and left are represented by finger puppets. Zehava Gal-On of Meretz is portrayed saying “End the occupation” again and again, while a man mimics Shelly Yachimovitch of Labor harping endlessly about the convergence of “wealth and power,” utilizing the time-honored tactic of debating an opponent by repeating his words in a silly voice.
In the end, all of the left-wing puppets are blown to confetti by an Iranian bomb, and they learn that they shouldn’t drone on about things like the occupation and the economy when Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon.
Viewers Tuesday evening learned that when Yachimovich was in grade school, she walked out of home economics class when the teacher wrote a list of women’s roles on the blackboard: ironing, cleaning, taking care of children. She didn’t go back all year, the Labor leader said in a short bio with the standard features: soft music, black-and-white photos of hard-working parents, a voice-over documenting her childhood, career and turn to politics.
Voters also learned that Yachimovich’s kitchen, which appears in the ad, is quite neat, that she has at least one large pot, and that she labels each Tupperware container in her freezer so she can tell what’s inside.
Currently the largest faction in Knesset, Kadima is about to be erased in the greatest political collapse in Israel’s history. Faced with this, the party has taken an interesting tack — complaining peevishly about its leader not getting the respect he deserves.
“Why would good people go into politics? Politics is crap. There is no other field as thankless and dirty,” a narrator says in Kadima’s ad. One person who did jump in, we are informed, is party leader Shaul Mofaz, the former military chief of staff and one of the most hapless politicians here in recent memory. He did this to “bring some values to this broken country.”
“There’s a hot trend right now to step on Shaul Mofaz,” the voice says, then asks in a confrontational tone: “Who are you to step on Shaul Mofaz?” In case viewers do not know, Mofaz “killed terrorists at point-blank range,” and “eliminated terror as no-one had before him.”
“For what? So that little people, nobodies, could call him pathetic.”
The narrator declares that on January 22 he will be doing the “least trendy thing there is” — he will be voting for Mofaz. Polls show that on election day the narrator will be more or less alone.
The ad for Tzipi Livni’s new party begins in attack mode: Netanyahu promised to crush Hamas, but has strengthened Hamas instead. And Liberman promised there would be no ceasefire with Hamas — cue a clip of Liberman saying, “There will be no ceasefire with Hamas,” and then a newspaper headline trumpeting a ceasefire with Hamas.
But then the color palette softens, and we see smiling faces, Livni hugging people, teenagers dancing. The word “hope” makes an appearance. The word “peace” — which has become taboo in Israeli politics, because it marks anyone using it as dangerously naïve — even flashes momentarily across the screen. Livni was unsuccessful at achieving peace when she was foreign minister, and it is unclear how she plans to achieve it with a small Knesset faction; that, viewers are left to assume, is where the “hope” part comes in.
“I’m here to tell those who have given up — don’t raise your hands,” Livni is seen telling a crowd. “You have someone to vote for.” A Times of Israel poll this week showed Livni getting five Knesset seats.
The religious party that is the ascendant power on the right has been running the best campaign of these elections, and Tuesday’s ads were no exception. The witty ex-journalist Uri Orbach and the striking and secular Ayelet Shaked, two of the party’s photogenic mainstream candidates — the party’s extremist settlers and politically incorrect rabbis having been deftly hidden for the duration of the campaign — address viewers with a promise that they will not use the tired features of election ads but will instead say exactly “what we believe.”
They don’t say what they believe, which is that Israel should annex 61 percent of the West Bank, leaving more than 2 million Palestinians permanently in several dozen isolated enclaves under Israeli security control and ending the possibility that Israel will be a Jewish democracy. But they come across as fresh, hip, and honest, and they press some effective buttons. “Some ask, ‘where’s the money?’” party leader Naftali Bennett is seen telling a crowd, referencing one of Yesh Atid party leader’s Yair Lapid’s favorite lines. “I ask, where are the values?”
Bennett, we are shown, also speaks excellent English, ably representing Israel’s position on foreign TV networks. The party tells us it cares about Jewish tradition, about Zionism, and, perhaps most of all, about the army.
No Israeli party has ever made use of military imagery as much as Jewish Home. One segment shows a candidate — presumably Bennett, though we don’t see his face — preparing for a TV shoot in a suit and tie. The camera pans down and shows us that he’s wearing scuffed army boots. Cue the party jingle and a gung-ho electric guitar.
Shas, the party of ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern descent, was founded in large part to protect its constituents against discrimination. The party appears to see no irony, however, in freely and crudely playing the ethnic card against others to get votes. One of the party’s ads shows a dark-skinned man under the huppah with a tall blonde who speaks with a heavy Russian accent. We learn, and so does he, that she is not actually Jewish but is waiting to get an instant conversion faxed to her. This, we are to understand, is what will happen if Shas is not in the government to stand guard at Judaism’s gates.
When the fax comes in, she leans over to kiss the groom, but he now knows she isn’t Jewish and shies away in disgust.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s spiritual guide, tells us in another ad that every house needs a mezuzah, a ritual marker placed on the doorway of a Jewish home. Shas, the rabbi says, is the mezuzah of the government.
The devout politicians of Shas are saved from having the creepiest ad of the 2013 by the race-baiters Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad, who are hoping to pick up votes on the hazy, yet not insubstantial, margins of the Israeli right by going after Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority.
In the party’s ad, Ben-Ari hands Eldad a cup of Arab coffee. Eldad thanks him in Arabic, then addresses the camera, also in Arabic.
“There are no rights without duties,” Ben-Ari, a Kahanist when that was legal, informs Arab viewers.
“We all have to serve the state of Israel, which is a Jewish and democratic state,” Eldad tells them, as Ben-Ari grins beside him.
As always, much of the entertainment provided by the campaign ads comes from small, eccentric parties with little or no chance of election.
The Green Leaf party, which supports marijuana legalization, made a pitch for lower taxes, presumably so voters would have more spending money once the legalization campaign succeeds. The party of Amnon Yitzhak, a rabbi and preacher in a tall, striped hat and long sidelocks, called for lowering the price of bread: “We checked with economists,” Rabbi Yitzhak told viewers. These economists informed him that bread actually costs “less than 1 shekel.”
The Greens bemoaned the state of Israel’s beaches, showing sand strewn with trash and a model in a bathing suit so people would pay attention. A guy named Ofer Lifshitz said he had been personally told by God that it was his job to save the People of Israel, and asked viewers to vote for him. A party called Or, meaning “Light,” demanded that the state stop funding religion.
One party, Kalkala, or “Economy,” used its ad to make a good point about how Israelis perceive their problems.
In the ad, two men are earnestly discussing how they would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then the camera pans out, and we see that the two men are homeless.
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