Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.
Blue and White election campaign poster showing party leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a Hebrew slogan reading 'Netanyahu cares only for himself,' February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Election campaign billboards for Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2020. (Flash90)
A billboard reading "Only a large Likud will prevent a left-wing government", as part of the Likud election campaign, seen near election posters of Blue and White party heads Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on September 11, 2019. (Alster/Flash90)
An election campaign billboard shows Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2020. (Flash90)
A campaign poster for the Yisrael Beytenu party features the image of leader Avigdor Liberman and the caption, "Liberman will keep Israel liberal," along the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A Blue and White election campaign poster in Tel Aviv shows images of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Education Rafi Peretz, February 24, 2020. (Flash90)
On December 11, 2019, in its final act after the midnight deadline to break the coalition deadlock expired, the 22nd Knesset passed a law setting a new election for March 2. At the same time, by passing the law, Knesset members also voted to give themselves tens of millions of more shekels than in previous campaigns to spend on bombarding the public with new pitches for votes.
The law calling that third election within a year — the only piece of legislation passed by the short-lived parliament — increased state funding for political parties’ campaigns by some NIS 61 million ($18 million), with each party receiving a raise of around 34 percent.
Legislators argued that the repeat national polls had caused smaller parties to accrue considerable debts, and they needed extra funds in order to both pay those debts and fund their new campaigns.
But the boost in funds went to all parties across the board, regardless of debts, with the largest parties — Blue and White and Likud — each gaining over 15 million extra shekels (around $4 million) to take their totals to over 60 million (approximately $17 million) in state funds, according to a recent study by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Assaf Shapira.
Benny Gantz walks during a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019.(Gali TIBBON / AFP)
And now, with parties taking note of a sense of apathy toward the coming vote, most have been saving the increased budget for the very final days of the campaign. An industry insider and campaign veteran estimated that some parties have saved over 90 percent of their budgets for campaign efforts in the final days, which include on-the-ground election day operations, last-minute publicity events, and advertising, both online and via billboards across the country.
“The number one budget item is advertisements,” they said, asking not to be named due to ongoing contracts during the coming election.
In the September election, most parties saved the majority of their advertising budgets for the final two weeks, only then plastering the country with the earnest-looking faces of politicians asking for the public’s vote. “This time, it’s the final five, four, maybe three days,” they said.
Israeli internet sites have been host to online campaigns from parties across the political spectrum for weeks and some parties — notably Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu — have already put significant funds into billboard advertisements, “but,” the campaign veteran predicted, “we are about to see a serious increase, across all fronts.”
They said that the increased funding would “definitely” have an effect on the amount of advertising, but added that prices have also gone up due to the increased demand.
A Blue and White party campaign poster is seen on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The calculations of election funding allocated to political parties are based on “funding units” whose size is determined by a public committee headed by a judge, and updated periodically in line with the rate of inflation. That unit currently stands at NIS 1,388,600 (approximately $400,000).
The parties are allocated units according to the number of seats they gained in the last election plus the number of seats they gain in the coming one (the full funding is only allocated after the election and parties must rely on donations or loans based on projected results), plus one additional unit. Parties that win over 1% of the vote get at least one unit – even if they fail to cross the electoral threshold and don’t win any seats.
“Until 1994, the Knesset Finance Committee was responsible for determining the funding unit. It raised the amount over and over again, and attracted public and legal criticism that eventually led to a change in the law. Transferring these powers to a public committee did indeed result in a reduction in the funding unit, from a high of NIS 1.8 million (in 2012 prices) in 1997, to just under NIS 1.4 million for all the recent election campaigns,” Shapira says in his study.
Unable to directly increase the sum of the funding unit set by the public committee, MKs nonetheless found a way to give themselves a raise for the March 2020 election by introducing a temporary amendment to the Political Parties Financing Law that multiplied the number of seats previously won and projected to be won by 1.31 in order to establish the number of “funding units” each party received. The amendment also changed the additional funding of one unit that each party receives, regardless of the number of seats it wins, to 1.81 units.
An ultra-Orthodox man walks near a Likud party billboard for Israel’s upcoming general elections on February 17, 2020, showing the portraits of (L to R) retired general Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White political alliance and Ahmad Tibi, Knesset member for the Arab Joint List, with a caption reading, “Gantz has no government without Tibi”. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
According to Shapira’s calculations based on current projections, whereas the total state funding for parties in the September 2019 election stood at NIS 178,435,000 (some $50 million), this election will put NIS 239,304,381 (nearly $70 million) in the parties’ coffers, an increase of NIS 60,869,381.
Blue and White, for example, will go from the NIS 47,906,700 it received last time, to NIS 63,452,077. Likud will go from NIS 46,518,100 to NIS 61,633,011.
The Joint List party, which is projected to retain its 13 seats in the coming election, will go from NIS 19,440,400 to NIS 26,161,224.
A Joint List campaign poster put up February 16, 2020, in Bnei Brak, saying in Yiddish: “Your vote against the enlistment decree.” (Joint List)
Mid-sized parties like United Torah Judaism and Yamina, which both won seven seats in September and are both projected to received around eight this time, go from receiving around NIS 12 million to NIS 17 million.
On the other end of the spectrum, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which failed to pass the electoral threshold in September but gained 1.4% of the vote, would go from receiving NIS 1,388,600, equal to one funding unit, to NIS 1,819,066, if they also gain more than 1% this time around.
Those additional funds now appear set to translate into a bombardment of advertisements in the last days before the March 2 national vote, both online and on the roads.
While refusing to divulge how much of the new funds have been spent so far and how their budgets are divided up, a number of parties admitted that most of their budgets had been saved.
“We did a fairly big buy before the final opinion polls on Thursday,” said one campaign official, “but we’re really going for an all-out push after that.”