Melodrama, Monopoly, and Fifty Shades of Bibi

Only five days remain before Israel’s elections, so this will be the final blogpost discussing the campaign video phenomenon. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it used to be a tradition that Israel’s parties would air their campaign ads on a predetermined date, roughly two weeks before the election. Families would gather around the television and watch several hours worth of short clips from parties large and small.

However social media has changed all that. This election cycle, Israeli voters have been blitzed by dozens of videos hoping to go viral (by Israeli standards, obviously). Some have retained the classic tools employed by their TV-age predecessors, but many have pushed the envelope and intentionally crossed invisible lines in order to garner more attention from an eager press.

In my previous post I drew attention to some of Israel’s more marginal parties. Now it is time to address the larger parties (at least according to polls) in the 2015 elections: Yesh Atid, Kulanu, the Jewish Home, the Zionist Union, and Likud.

Yesh Atid, under the authority of Yair Lapid, was the darling of the 2013 election. A former TV persona, Lapid rode the wave of frustration exposed during the 2011 social protests and garnered the 2nd largest number of Knesset seats (19). However, Yesh Atid has experience growing pains over the last two years and is only projected to earn 12 seats next week. There are a number of reasons as to why this is the case: Yesh Atid is perceived as having failed to initiate all of its promised reforms, the strength of the Zionist Union under Isaac Herzog and the arrival of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party has drawn away many Yesh Atid voters, and historically centrist parties have short political lives.

As in 2013, Lapid’s message has largely been one of hope, and Yesh Atid’s videos are reflective of that theme. Interestingly enough, the campaign has translated many of its videos for an English-speaking audience (available here), which conveniently saves me some translation work:

The latest centrist party trying to squeeze its way into the Knesset is Kulanu, chaired by Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon previously served as a member of Likud and as Communications Minister from 2009-2013. Kahlon is accredited for having overseen the “cellular revolution”, during which the Israeli market opened itself to a host of new companies, drastically lowering phone costs. That alone made Kahlon a popular figure in the eyes of many Israelis, particularly those who spend most of their days plugged into a Bluetooth earpiece, but an adoption of “old Likud” rhetoric (and by that I mean the Likud of Menachem Begin) and a Mizrachi background have also contributed to his success.

The voice you hear in the video is that of Kahlon himself:
“I joined the Likud party at the age of 17,” he says, “the Likud of Menachem Begin promised a different reality. It promised that success was possible. It was like being at home. The Likud party would never forget the man who works to provide for his family. Begin’s Likud opened a path that was denied to an entire generation. Begin was right. Begin fought for people like me.
“Most of Likud’s supporters have not abandoned the way of Begin; they understand today the necessity to return to the path that takes notice of other human beings, that sees justice, that behaves modestly. This country is for all of us. I am here to return her back to us all.”
If Yair Lapid has cast himself as the defender of the middle class, Kahlon has adopted a similar role for Israel’s lower classes. However what really distinguishes their messages is Kahlon’s desire to borrow Menachem Begin’s ideology and transfer it to a new party. On the final slide in this video, Kulana reflects its desire to recreate this previous moment of glory: “We loved Likud. Vote Kahlon.”
Building a new party is challenging regardless of whose image you are trying to emulate. One of the individuals Kahlon succeeded in bringing onto his team is former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Oren is American-born and bred, so it came as little surprise that there would be at least one video during which he spoke in English. Here it is:

I deeply respect Oren as a diplomat and a scholar, but he shouldn’t quit his day job anytime soon.

By comparison, the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett is running away with the viral video Oscar. (I have commented on a number of his party’s ads here.) These are the latest from his party:

Bennett sees himself as the heir apparent to Netanyahu on Israel’s political right. As a result, Bennett has equally divided his time between ads that promote his record as Economy Minister and those which emphasize his military background and commitment to Israel’s defense.
However, as leader of the Jewish Home, Bennett is also the voice of many religious Zionists and an advocate of the settlement movement. The following video is intended to assure its audience that the bonds between the Jewish Home and its earlier political manifestation, the National Religious Party (Mafdal), are unbroken even though Bennett is trying to broaden the party’s base.

Bennett, shown watching the old Mafdal videos from the comfort of his salon, made a small fortune when he sold his software company, Cyota, for $145 million, so it comes as little surprise that contemporary Jewish Home parliamentarians have been virtually transported into these nostalgic scenes. Rich with Jewish iconography and shots of the Western Wall, this video is all about catering to the Jewish Home’s core constituents. At the end of the scene, Bennett turns to former Mafdal MK Shaul Yahalom and asks, “So, what do think?” Yahalom replies. “Honestly? There is no place like home.”
Although Bennett, Lapid, and Kahlon may have aspirations to be prime minister one day, that is not going to happen in 2015. Even Bennett, a rising star, is only projected to receive 11 or 12 seats. So while roughly 63% of voters will be casting ballots for other parties, the question of which party gets to lead the next coalition government comes down to whether the challenger, Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, can topple the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
I am going to wait until next week to talk about the differences between Herzog and Netanyahu as individuals, but Likud and the Zionist Union’s primary party, Labor, have been in competition with one another since Israel’s founding. Labor was in power from 1948 until Menachem Begin sparked the “hamahapach”, or “reversal” in 1977. Ever since that reversal, Likud has been the dominant party.
Netanyahu has come under attack for his campaign ads, some of which I have already commented on, however the common trait found in most of them has been their cavalier (if not flippable) message.
Case in point:

OK, the storyline here is obvious. The Israeli media and political opposition are distracting the public from what really matters. Netanyahu is a victim.
But this commercial is not purely satirical. In fact, it is bookended by small references to real complaints during Netanyahu’s tenure. In the first lines, Netanyahu is reproducing his troubled relationship with US President Barack Obama. Towards the end, when Netanyahu requests ice cream from his aide, he is actually invoking memories of the 2013 scandal over his alleged sweet tooth. So the commercial is not simply self-deprecating, but also mocking those who believe that the prime minister’s budget and his relationship with POTUS are serious matters.
This strategy has been repeated again and again throughout the campaign. Netanyahu used actual children in order to belittle various party leaders, stoked fears by associating a Zionist Union electoral victory with a victory for the Islamic State, and most recently asserting his unwavering support for a united Jerusalem during a choreographed game of monopoly. And although some of these videos have been banned by the Central Elections Committee, this only occurred following their release and likely only contributed to their viewership online. However, last week’s ad may have pushed the envelope too far.

Here is a summary from The Times of Israel article on the ad (found here):

The tongue-in-cheek ad shows an Alcoholics-Anonymous-style support circle featuring persons depicting a cell-phone company executive, a port worker, an Israel Broadcasting Authority tax collector and a Hamas terrorist voicing their contempt for the Netanyahu government’s economic reforms and his policy toward the Palestinian terror group during his previous term.

The “port-worker” — head of a fictitious “tea department” — said he used to work three hours a week for a monthly salary of NIS 50,000-60,000 before bonuses. “Until the reform [of the port authority] came along. All of a sudden we had to actually start working, to serve the public. It’s awful!” he says.

The woman portraying the worker at the IBA’s tax collection department asked who she will levy taxes from now that the government decided to terminate television and broadcasting fees starting in late 2015.

The “cell-phone company executive” lamented that he had to sell his exotic pet tiger that had become unaffordable given that he was no longer able to swindle ordinary Israelis with exorbitantly high cell-phone fees.

A “Hamas member” from Gaza dressed in full terrorist attire speaking in very bad Arabic-accented Hebrew said that he too joined the support group “because of Bibi,” using the prime minister’s nickname. He was there presumably to complain about the state of the terror organization following the summer’s war with Israel in which the group suffered significant setbacks, according to the government.

At the end of the advertisement, Netanyahu appeared before the group and vowed to continue pushing through reforms and deal with ongoing security challenges head on.

The criticism for the ad was widespread and received attention in the international press. Likud apologized and took the ad down. But similar to the strategy behind early-releasing Super Bowl commercials, once the information was out on the web the damage was already done, or, alternatively, its impact was already felt.

Most vocal among Netanyahu’s critics is the Zionist Union. The party does not hide its agenda to overthrow the prime minister, and has taken the him to task on several occasions for his controversial commercials. The following Zionist Union clip shows Netanyahu, enjoying his popcorn and laughing as the nightly news reports on the lack of space in Israel’s hospitals (a real and very serious issue):

“Bibi,” a voice states, “while you star in comedies, we live a tragedy.”
Politics may not be fun and games, but that hasn’t stopped the Zionist Union from using pop culture references in order to reframe a similar argument in a new form. This video, for example, plays off the new Hollywood film “Fifty Shades of Grey”:

In this case, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has been substituted by “Fifty Shades of Black”. The narrator lists groups within Israel that are living in “black”: young couples unable to put down a mortgage on a home, the middle class that struggles to make ends meet, residents of Israel’s south who live in bomb shelters, the starved elderly, small businesses, etc.
“The Netanyahu regime presents: Fifty Shades of Black,” the voices reiterates before the ad ad shifts from black to white, and promises that “after six black years it will be over. The Zionist Union presents: Fifty Shades of Hope.”
Provocative? Marginally. But my criticism of the Zionist Union’s video campaign is the same that I have with most parties. Rather than presenting solutions to Israel’s complicated and numerous problems, Herzog & Co. were satisfied with only pointing out Netanyahu’s flaws.
A fantastic case in point is the final video, in which Herzog speaks directly to his audience:

“In the last few weeks,” Herzog begins, “a number of funny videos have been put up on the internet. Bibi dresses up as a kindergarten teacher. Bibi dresses up as a babysitter. I have received countless requests to respond to him and also appear in funny videos. But honestly, the situation in Israel is not funny. That one third of Israeli children live below the poverty line is not funny. Young couples living with their parents because they are unable to buy an apartment is not funny. Just a few months ago, an entire country sat in bomb shelters, which is really not funny. So you, Bibi, can continue being filmed as a clown, because as prime minister – you have failed.”

Some in Israel take issue with Herzog’s lack of experience. Many say that he lacks the toughness expected out of the nation’s prime minister. Admittedly, his refusal to lower himself to Netanyahu’s level should have some value. But in the end, Herzog’s use of this virtual airtime in order to attack Netanyahu rather than provide one good idea to the Israeli public seems like a wasted opportunity.

Considering that these elections were prompted by Netanyahu in order to ensure the perpetuation of his political career, there have been some nice surprises, including the extensive use of social media videos in order to address Israeli voters. Social media has the potential to make an enormous impact in Israeli politics. However in order for this trend to be more than simply a gimmick, campaigners need to engage more intelligently with their viewers and seek more than just a few laughs or a reiteration of a single party line.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel