This election season has been littered with slapstick campaign ads that bring out the worst in Israeli politics. Observers from afar who have heard over and over again how crucial these elections are for the future of the Zionist project may be taken aback by the lack of any serious debate on the future of Israel or the parties' core values.
As an observer from the United Kingdom, perhaps I’m more used to the dry, understated nature of British comedy. I’m sure that our own general elections, due in May, will bring their own gimmicks. But the level of humor in the rash of viral videos sweeping Israel, a country where so much is at stake, is surprising, to say the least.
There is nonetheless something very Israeli about the enthusiasm with which these comedy clips are being used as a political campaigning tool. Social media is transforming election strategy everywhere in the world, and Israelis like to see themselves as early adopters.
Social media has also proven a good fit for the Israeli political landscape. Arcane laws, originating in 1959, strictly limit election broadcasts on television and radio channels before the country goes to the polls.
There are no official constituency politics in Israel, unlike in many other democracies. The absence of regional representation means there are no local politicians who go door-to-door to get out the vote, like they do here in Britain, and large-scale political rallies are no longer the wildly popular social events they once were.
There’s also something very Israeli in the direct, personal approach of connecting with voters via social media. It is part of the informality of public life where politicians and army generals alike are known by childhood nicknames.
But it also speaks volumes about the country’s post-ideological climate when social-media skits become the tools for distinguishing the main parties in 2015.
Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett kicked off the YouTube-campaigning trend. In this ad, the religious Zionist leader is dressed up as a Tel Aviv hipster, complete with a bushy, ginger beard and an absurdly small dog tucked under one arm, lampooning left-wing apologists. Habayit Hayehudi’s success in the last elections was a triumph of branding away from its dusty old settler antecedents. This time too, its message is far less about Judea and Samaria than about the intoxicating defiance of Jewish pride.
Benjamin Netanyahu's first YouTube clip took a cheap jab at his rivals, portraying the prime minister as a kindergarten teacher presiding over a cabinet of children. (This spoof was quickly banned for illegally using images of children in a political campaign). From there, Netanyahu moved on to the "Bibi-sitter" clip where he conveys that he – and only he – can care for the children of Israel. In his latest ad, Netanyahu laughs off reports of corruption in the prime minister's residence as ludicrous gossip that distracts from the real business of government – or at least from Bibi’s signature task, talking tough to Obama.
These adverts display the human, fun side to a prime minister better known for dour grimness, and portray Israel's right-wing leadership as politicians confident enough to laugh at themselves.
Indeed, Netanyahu and Bennett are showing themselves to be one of the boys, something the effete Labor prince Isaac Herzog can never hope to be, and a club that his Zionist Union co-leader, Tzipi Livni, is permanently excluded from.
Their opposition is lagging far behind in this competition. Meretz responded to the Bennett video with one where its chairwoman, Zehava Galon, dresses up, fairly convincingly, as a religious woman, before deciding not to spoof anyone. “Meretz doesn’t make fun of brothers and sisters,” was the tagline.
Similarly, Yesh Atid scored a self-righteous own goal with its three-hour “anti-viral video” in which a man sits in an armchair listing the party’s achievements over its two years in office.
Not only did neither amount to serious campaigning, but both failed as clumsy attempts to match the confident chutzpah of the right-wing. And they missed the point of viral media: If your YouTube clip doesn’t feature cats, then it at least has to be funny.
For his part, Herzog put out a video explaining why no comic skits would be emerging from his office. “Over the past few weeks, there have been several funny clips that have gone online portraying Bibi as a kindergarten teacher and as a babysitter,” Herzog says. “I have received many calls to also make funny clips. But the truth is that the situation in Israel is not funny.” (The Likud campaign’s response was to reissue a “Bibi-sitter” clip showing the prime minister sitting on a sofa eating popcorn and laughing. This time, he’s watching the Herzog video.) Herzog is right, but it’s doubtful that taking the moral high ground will score him any extra political points. That isn’t what this election is about.
It seems that politicians and their campaign managers think superficial comic spoofs are more effective tools than emphasizing their party’s policies and achievements to date. Netanyahu’s offer to look after the nation’s children is not accompanied by any details as to how they will be kept safe, educated, and given a chance to perhaps someday be able to afford their own home.
Likud’s latest clip is even cruder, featuring ISIS militants in a pick-up truck who ask an Israeli everyman the way to Jerusalem. “Take a left!” is the everyman's cheerful reply, in a symbol of leftist perfidy. It’s that simple, the tagline declares: “The left will surrender to terror.”
Humor is a fantastic tool to engage people in politics, but as an end in itself – which is what the viral videos are – it says something very sad about the expectations of politicians and the electorate alike.
It’s easier to turn to spoof and populism when you have no answers to any of the problems Israel is facing; international isolation, a yawning chasm between rich and poor, let alone its continued rule over millions of Palestinians.
These videos are funny, but they’re not clever. In a country where the issues are overwhelming, the campaigns are proving overwhelmingly superficial.
Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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