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Hitting the Campaign Trail in Israel When There's No Election

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Finance Minister Kahlon during a press conference, April, 2017.
Finance Minister Kahlon during a press conference, April, 2017.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Motorists traveling along Jerusalem’s Begin Highway or the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv might be under the impression that election time is here. Billboards featuring a decisive-looking Moshe Kahlon – finance minister and chairman of the Kulanu Party – pointing into the distance feature the slogans “Your net. Kahlon’s net,” as in net profit.

The ads, which are being paid for by Kulanu (“headed by Moshe Kahlon”), aren’t the only unofficial campaigning the party is engaged in. This week in Kiryat Ono it’s holding what is billed as a “Big Conference for Young Families,” one of a series the party has been holding. “Come for a one-time meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and MK Rachel Azaria!” and includes an array of local luminaries, including Mayor Ron Malka.

Even the treasury itself has in a way been recruited for the campaign. Television viewers have been treated to infomercials produced by the Finance Ministry that appear before the nightly news featuring four of the minster’s pet projects, including the child-savings program and the Machir L’Mishtaken drive to lower home prices. They also appear on Facebook and on Youtube.

Kahlon never appears in the infomercials nor is his name even hinted at. But some of the ads, which were produced by the government ad agency, end with the slogan “The Finance Ministry, your net,” echoing the Kulanu slogan. Thanks to his “Family Net” program of tax cuts and other benefits, “net” has become associated with the finance minister.

Kulanu is conducted its campaign on a shoestring. The nationwide billboard campaign would ordinarily cost about 1.5 million shekels ($420,000), estimate advertising industry sources, but because no elections have been called and no other party is engaged in campaigning, ad rates are low right now so the real cost if probably less than 1 million, they say.

Nor is Kulanu spending money on costlier radio and TV advertising. The treasury infomercials, some of which were produced before the “Family Net” program was launched, cost 3 million shekels to produce, but that comes from the state budget.

But in the absence of any other party campaigning, Kulanu’s ads are probably having an outsized effect, say advertising industry sources. Kahlon is the only candidate appealing to voters amid a sea of summer sales and consumer product pitches.

In fact, Kulanu was using the term “net” in the 2015 elections, its first-ever campaign and that won its 10 Knesset seats. Kahlon promised Israelis he would reduce the cost of living as finance minister by reducing home prices, food costs and bank fees. The ad man Uri Frieden was the one who suggested it. Borrowing from English, in Hebrew slang “neto” refers to the bottom line, to the real, in-pocket amount.

In the 2015 campaign, it was a signal to voters that voting Kulanu meant not voting for the left, the right or for the settlers, but for a party that would look after their salaries and standard of living. It told them Kahlon was the candidate who didn’t just promise, but delivered.

After the campaign, “net” disappeared from view, but it was revived in April when the treasury unveiled his “Family Net” plan with great fanfare. The name was selected by a small group of treasury officials and it was supposed to turn “net” from a political slogan to a government one. But in the last month, Kahlon has shown he’s not letting go of its political side.

There’s no law that says you can’t stage a political campaign when there’s no election. It’s no accident that Kulanu’s billboards feature a slightly different slogan that the treasury’s. The law clearly states that government money and facilities can’t be used for electioneering. The question is whether Kahlon and his party are keeping within the bounds of the law.

The campaign raises the issue of whether campaign rules should be amended to prevent the use of government resources by politicians to score political points. Kahlon isn’t the only one who does it. Naftali Bennett, the education minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader, uses radio ads to promote his ministry’s Sabbath program and Likud’s Ofir Akunis does the same for his Science Ministry undertakings.

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