The Jon Stewart-ization of Israeli Politics

When Tzipi Livni hit Prime Minister Netanyahu - literally - below the belt in a recent appearance on a satiric comedy show, the Israeli public was taken aback.

Haaretz Daily Cartoon - 16/12/2014
Taking out the 'trash.' Amos Biderman

The fine line between serious political debate and entertainment has been pretty much ground to dust in the contemporary United States.

Musicians, movie stars and television personalities freely talk (and tweet) their politics, many flirt with a political career and, ever since Ronald Reagan blazed a trail from Hollywood to D.C., often cross the line and enter the fray, bringing their high profiles with them.

Ever since presidential candidate Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall show in 1992, traffic has also been flowing in the other direction, as American politicians began to realize that, as the demographics of the news-watching audience veers in a geriatric direction, the only way they can get themselves in front of young voters is to plant themselves onto the television shows young voters are watching.

And so appearances by elected leaders and hopeful candidates became routine on late-night talk and satirical shows - from Leno and Letterman to Conan, Fallon and Kimmel.

Presidential candidates are now eager to appear on Saturday Night Live - even when they know that part and parcel of such appearances involves standing by good-humoredly as they are skewered by their hosts.

Then came Jon Stewart and his Daily Show. That’s when things really got confusing. Stewart isn't content to merely toss around light-hearted banter when he gets figures like President Obama on his stage. He wants them to talk real politics - to delve into the big and pressing issues of the day while still eliciting barrels of laughter. Politicians have had to perform an unenviably complicated dance on his show - to make their points, keep up with Stewart’s sharp banter, and still attempt to maintain their dignity.

Like most things American, Israel is following suit - only a bit late in the game. Israeli politicians are luckier in that their constituents tends to become news junkies at a younger age than in the U.S. - the nature of the volatile Middle East makes it a necessity. But still, if Israeli politicians want prime time exposure - and what politician doesn’t? - they too now understand that the action is on the satire shows.

And so we’ve gotten used to it - even image-conscious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to play the game in the previous election cycle, appearing on shows like “A Wonderful Country” (Eretz Nehederet). His appearances - and those of prime ministerial wannabes Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid - have essentially followed the same script. They are forced to sit and chuckle while they are ridiculed, throw in a little self-deprecation, insert a serious message or two and maybe - very carefully - throw a few softball shots at some of their rivals.

That’s why there has been something of a shocked public reaction to current contender, former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, when she appeared on “State of the Nation” immediately following the big announcement of her new partnership with the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Herzog, a move that has created hope that the duo prove key to ousting Netanyahu from power. 

In the spirit of the sharp-tongued satirical show, Livni let Prime Minister Netanyahu have it. 

The two Livni riffs that caused the biggest stir:

- Joking about male-female roles in her new “political marriage” with Herzog, Livni said: “We decided in advance that we wouldn’t fight about who does dishes and who does the laundry — but agreed that we would take out the garbage together.” The “garbage” obviously, being the Prime Minister.

- In a nasty pun playing on the root word ‘potent’, she said, “Two ‘potent’ial prime ministers are better than one ‘impotent’ prime minister.”

Israelis are used to scandals where politicians get carried away in denunciations and step over a line of good taste. But Livni's jokes were no spontaneous cracks. Rather, they were carefully crafted and scripted remarks designed to send a message that she was coming out swinging - a counter-offensive against the Herzog-Livni image of being too elitist, polite, Ashkenazi, and frankly, too girly, for the down-and-dirty realities of the Middle East.

With her appearance on "State of the Nation," Livni was sending a message that she is tough enough to get down in the dirt. Will it work? Or will slinging such stinging mud on prime time television leave stains that can’t be washed away? Stay tuned for the next round of political polling.