MODIIN, ISRAEL — The official radio and television campaigns of all the parties running for parliament in Israel kicked off on Tuesday, January 7. Strange as it may seem, all radio and television election campaigning here begins on a fixed date, runs for a fixed amount of time, and is limited to fixed hours during the day. In fact, campaign politicking on radio or TV outside those set-aside times is strictly forbidden by law. The amount of time allocated to a party is determined by the size of its representation in the outgoing parliament, with a certain minimum time allotted to new parties.The purpose of strictly delimited campaigning is to prevent politicians from manipulating news events — or even creating them — in order to get their messages across. The danger of such media manipulation is especially great in the case of the ruling party, as government ministers naturally feature in daily news stories more often than do other parliamentarians. For exactly that reason, the head of the Central Elections Committee (CEC), Justice Mishael Cheshin, pulled the plug in the middle of a televised press conference by the prime minister on January 9.
In Israel, where the parliamentary system comprises a number of small, sectional parties, campaign ads provide a colorful window into Israeli society, with almost every socio-political shade getting its own 15 (or so) minutes of fame.
In an interesting twist, several parties vying for seats in the Knesset advertise that they will work to overhaul the electoral system itself. The right-wing National Union party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, wants to see a clearly defined executive branch, absolutely distinct from the parliamentary legislature. Another ex-Likud member, David Magen, is running independently and calling for regional representation, with individual politicians personally accountable to the voters — “like in the United States,” he says. On the other end of the political spectrum, the Communists (yes, we still have those) boast that only they “know who to take from” for the good of the people. To keep things perfectly clear, Communist ads feature a dinner party of wealthy bourgeoisie plotting to take over the country.
Nothing political can be free of controversy, but in Israel, these controversies tend to go to the heart of the country’s identity. The original campaign jingle of the right-wing Herut party was disqualified by the Central Elections Committee “for fear that it borders on incitement.” How? The jingle is a spoof of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” with Arabic nationalist slogans and chants replacing the standard words, as a warning against the intentions of Arab parties in the Knesset. Also disqualified by the CEC was a United Arab List (UAL) advertisement that called upon Arabs to “liberate al-Aqsa mosque [on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem] and to fight against Israeli occupation.” Knesset member Abdulmalik Dehamshe of the UAL reacted with reserve, saying only, “It appears that the text of the ad was not translated correctly.” Perhaps, to satisfy both Herut and the Arab list, the judge should simply have ordered a simultaneous Hebrew translation of the UAL spot.
Yet to be decided upon is a petition filed with the CEC head by Sofa Landwer of the Labor party, asking for the disqualification of a campaign ad produced by the religious party, Shas. The Shas ad in question shows “a Jewish family” undergoing a Christian baptism, with dire warnings against missionaries in Israel. Landwer called the ad “very insulting” to the “immigrant community.” Is Landwer claiming that “the immigrant community” is offended by conversion to Christianity, by an ad against conversion to Christianity, or both?
One campaign ad, however, doesn’t run during the regular political time slots on TV. This is an advertisement that looks remarkably like an authentic election plug, with a jingle that says, “The people want peace, the people want security… but more than that, the people want pastrami!” As remarked upon by local comedian and talk-show host Jacky Levy, the election campaign for pastrami is the hands-down best. Why? “It only says what is good about pastrami, without bashing the salami, the gyros, the sausages….”
— Nissan Ratzlav-Katz is opinion editor at www.IsraelNationalNews.com who frequently writes for NRO. His commentaries have been published internationally and translated into several languages. He writes from Israel.