While Benjamin Netanyahu was busy wooing Congress and America, his leading contender, Isaac Herzog, was busy trying to woo the people of Sderot and the rest of Israel. It only seems fair that if the prime minister, exactly two weeks before election day, can grab upwards of an hour of prime-time coverage in Israel and on most major international satellite channels, the opposition leader should get a few minutes of face-time as well.
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But the Central Elections Commission (CEC) definition of fairness is a strict interpretation of a campaign law that was passed in 1959, and which governs how much air time candidates can get. According to that definition, Herzog’s speech in Sderot – a small city in southern Israel that has endured years of rocket attacks due to its proximity to the Gaza Strip – amounted to electioneering, and so the CEC had Israel’s three big networks pull away mid-sentence. Apparently, Herzog’s pointed questioning of whether Netanyahu’s policies had really made the people of the war-battered south any more secure was too political for unregulated TV coverage - but Netanyahu’s Middle East doctrine and his critique of the Obama administration’s approach with Iran was not.
Last month, the CEC decided that Netanyahu’s controversial speech would not be broadcast live in Israel, but with a five-minute delay. If the speech was deemed to have veered into electioneering, it could be stopped. Realistically, the chance of the CEC doing so was exceeding low, for many reasons. And Netanyahu had no need to drop in a blatant “vote for me” as part of the speech: that’s already the implicit message of any politician running for re-election.
Israel’s laws regulating electioneering in the weeks before election day are not just heavy-handed and meddlesome, a leftover from the era in which Israelis looked up to Socialist European countries and even the Soviet Union, but stand in the path of full democracy and the march of technology. Although official television and radio ads were only launched on Tuesday, election videos have been appearing on social media for months. As early as December, a video of Naftali Bennett mocking left-wingers as apologists went viral. Then came the video of Netanyahu as the “Bibisitter,” which portrayed Herzog and his Zionist Union partner Tzipi Livni as untrustworthy to average Israelis. The Israeli public was exposed to a full-fledged mockery of a campaign law created for an Israel of your, a country of one television channel and two radio stations, in a world that was still two decades away from the launch of CNN.
Of course, when the law governing campaign propaganda was passed more than half a century ago, the exact opposite was intended. The law was meant to give fair access to all parties, including newer and smaller ones.
“There was an attempt to level the playing field so that no candidate had a disproportionate ability to publicize themselves above all the other candidates. The idea is that money and power shouldn’t be allowed to skewer the voters’ preferences,” explains Michael Partem, a lawyer for the Movement of the Quality of Government in Israel.
“It’s an antiquated law, and though we agree on the principles, the practice is problematic. For example, the media wants to be able to interview elected officials during campaign time – they have a right to ask questions. But everything a sitting official running for office says is going to be skewed toward his re-election campaign – it's almost unavoidable.” As a result, he notes, one often finds that in the weeks before the elections, an otherwise appropriate time for asking candidates tough questions, program hosts and politicians sometimes self-censor or trade on-air warnings about slipping dangerously into electioneering.
Not only does this system hinder free and open discussion of the most important issues at a time when undecided voters are looking to be persuaded, but it is a system which is blatantly biased in favor of the incumbent. It encourages catchy propaganda production and discourages meaningful debate. And though there was an attempt to modernize the law in year 2000 – until then there was a total blackout of officials speaking on broadcast media in the two weeks before the elections – the reform did not get nearly far enough.
When a prime minister asking voters for a fourth term in office can get close to an hour of prime-time love but the opposition leader gets four minutes of his speech on the same evening before being cut off, it’s time to ask questions about how effective these laws are in fostering democracy and letting candidates talk to the people. The Zionist Union team had no comment on the CEC pulling the plug on Herzog Tuesday, saying that they were taking it to the street, not the screen.
“We are focused on meeting thousands upon thousands of Israelis in our field campaign,” says Gabriel Sassoon, the foreign media advisor for the Zionist Union Campaign, “talking to them directly about their issues and concerns one on one and in small groups, not, primarily, via television broadcast.”