Israeli Politics Keep Up With the Kardashians

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Naftali Bennett, Israel's economy minister, is a man of many achievements and titles: officer in prestigious Israeli commando forces, high-tech entrepreneur, multi-millionaire, political whiz. At the age of 41 he is the third-strongest man in Israeli politics, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. The recent sale of Soluto, an Israeli start-up he once headed, for $130 million could add millions more to his fortune.

But an ambitious man is never satisfied, and last week Bennett managed to add another title to his trophy case: reality-TV star.

That's not to say that Bennett actually starred in a reality show. What he did was more like a white politician rapping.

Bennett shot a video confessional, in the very distinct style of a popular Israeli reality show called "Mehubarim" ("The Connected"), in which male and female media professionals document themselves doing mundane things and talking about their messy lives.

Camera in hand, his face as stern as the face of any reality starlet talking about an upcoming gynecology exam, Bennett is seen in the video with his green polo shirt slightly open, revealing a hint of chest hair. He is shooting vertically instead of horizontally, which is a big no-no for any experienced YouTube user. He then uploaded the thing to his Facebook page.

The video raised a few eyebrows, caused many a chuckle and inspired not a few jokes about Bennett's future career trajectory. Though it bears mention in this context that he's quite the experienced Youtuber - he uploads several clips a week.

Anyway, we're not used to see politicians out of their suits, documenting themselves with unflattering close-ups like stars in home-made hot tapes.

It isn’t as though he wasn't talking about serious things in that video: the day before, the Security Cabinet – on which Bennett sits – voted unanimously to increase Israel's defense budget, a controversial move. Bennett, who had previously argued for cutting the defense budget, voted for the increase.

"In the media the whole thing was described as an arm wrestling contest – 'he won, he didn't win' – but the truth is we all won", he explained in his clip to his many followers. A few seconds later, he had to stop for a second: "Hold on, we're crossing the road."

Obsessed with someone else's reality

Was it a funny homage, an ingenious way to engage voters by speaking to them in a more relatable setting, or a transparent attempt to exploit the reality trend as a way to appeal to young voters?

Maybe neither. In a country where 50% of the top-rated shows in 2012 were reality programs (compared with a worldwide average of 13%, according to a study by Mediametrie), where no less than three singing competitions rule the prime-time, it was only a matter of time before the national pastime reached the corridors of the Knesset.

Israeli politics, in general, fits quite beautifully in a cultural landscape filled with reality-TV antics. Between MKs taking shirtless selfies of themselves, MKs who voice deep concern about the lack of a proper make-up room in the Knesset, would-be central bank governors detained for shoplifting in airports and MKs who squirt water at each other - it's hard sometimes to differentiate between the evening news and Big Brother.

Yair Lapid is to politics as Paris Hilton is to...

And that's before even mentioning Yair Lapid ,a politician who sometimes seems as foreign to the world of politics as Paris Hilton is to global finance.

Lapid, a close ally of Bennett and a mega-celebrity so public he had journalists document his gym routine during coalition negotiations, is the original reality-star politician. Three months ago, at the heat of the controversy surrounding his austerity budget, Lapid uploaded a video confessional of his own, shot by an assistant while driving at 3 AM. He talked about his feelings of discomfort, loneliness and fortitude. It was less comical that Bennett's video (it was shot horizontally), but likewise it used the aesthetic staples of the reality-TV genre to convey a political message.

To be fair, it should be noted that Israeli politics always had a bit of reality-TV's hamminess, from the legendary personal animosity between the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, to former MK Yossef Ba-Gad bringing a toy tank to the Knesset speaker podium, or former MK Charlie Bitton handcuffing himself to that same podium, or Bibi and Sara Netanyahu living high on the hog with luxury trips abroad and multi-thousand shekel ice cream budgets.

Maybe Bennett, Lapid and their like shouldn't be lampooned for embracing a trend that is much bigger than them and has more to do with the fact that Israeli politics has always been governed by emotions, in recent years to the extreme.

Consider, for example, the tense and prolonged negotiations that preceded the establishment of Netanyahu's current government: Sara Netanyahu, newspapers reported, was adamantly against Naftali Bennett – Netanyahu's natural political ally – joining the coalition because he supposedly said mean things about her in the past. So Bibi was against him too. But Yair Lapid wanted Bennett in because (just before the election) they'd become bros. Lapid threatened to stay out if he couldn't have Naftali, so Bennett was in. Even on the Jersey Shore it would be hard to find such emotional intrigue.

And that brings us back to Bennett and his documented walk &talk. Really, despite its comical aspects, this development shouldn't surprise anyone. If politics start to resemble reality shows, after all, who can blame politicians if they act accordingly?

Naftali Bennett at Kida, July 25, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod
Reality star Kim Kardashian, inspiration for Israeli politicians?Credit: Reuters

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