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The controversy nicknamed "Bottle-gate" – describing Sara Netanyahu's apparent pocketing of deposits from bottles at the Prime Minister’s Residence – is just the latest example of outlandish, sometimes bizarre scandals concerning the prime minister. In the past, we've seen expenditures at the residence on items such as pistachio ice cream and scented candles get so high that the State Comptroller has conducted investigations into them. Netanyahu’s appeals to the media to direct their fire at him rather than at members of his family have in the past come off as self-righteous and self-pitying. So now he’s trying a different tack.
The 74-second parody uses the reductio ad absurdum technique: acknowledging a criticism, but then exaggerating it to the point where it seems completely ridiculous, and its proponents wrong-headed. In this video, which is funny and entertaining, Netanyahu accuses his critics of piling on and attempting to distract voters from serious policy issues with nonsense.
The video opens with Netanyahu on his office phone, speaking in his unaccented English to “Mr. President,” presumably U.S. President Barack Obama, telling him “Israel is acting to defend its security.” It’s not a huge leap to imagine he is referring to his upcoming speech to Congress – cleverly diffusing the mounting criticism about his plan to lecture American legislators about Iran while antagonizing the president and many Democrats, while at the same time referring to the subject Netanyahu is confident that he owns; Israel’s security.
The backdrop elements – his large desk, the Israeli flag, a map of the Middle East, a hannukiah, books – are all meant to instantly communicate the image of authority and command, and our prime minister's Jewishness.
In a rapid series of jump-cuts, Netanyahu’s aide runs into his office clutching a newspaper, his open laptop, or his cell phone to breathlessly report on yet another breaking but meaningless tempest in a teapot; Netanyahu and the snails in the backyard, cups in the sink reported by “Lie-Net” (a joke on Ynet); the popsicle that dripped on the sofa, hungry and even thirsty fish, (“But I feed them every day,” Netanyahu protests, while doing just that), the noisy air conditioner bugging the neighbors, unanswered calls, a wobbly stool, and – in a moment of modernist filmic self consciousness (okay, about 50 years late) – the “affair of the boom mike in the frame,” which dutifully drops down to bop the aide on the head.
Netanyahu stays calm – if increasingly incredulous – throughout. After his White House call is interrupted, he is shown reading, writing on a piece of paper, and feeding his fish.
Finally, he says, “Enough,” abandons the staged interplay with the aide, and takes his pitch to the voter directly to the camera. Having shown us that his critics will glom onto meaningless inanities in their search for trumped up scandals, Netanyahu explains rather convincingly that his opponents are trying to distract the voter with nonsense. Only Likud will guarantee our children’s security and make our economy bloom, he conveys. “It’s Us or Them,” he says, referring to both Likud’s and the Zionist Union's billboard campaigns, and then, answering his own unasked rhetorical question, provides the answer; “You know it’s us.” (A deflating moment and the weakest part of the script.)
It ends with a winking reference to the ice-cream affair. The aide ambles calmly in sans media devices, and asks the prime minister if he wants to drink anything. “You know what,” Netanyahu answers, “I’d like some ice cream,” and then the button on the joke, “but not pistachio.”
Humor goes a long way, especially if you’re trying to humanize a man seen as out of touch. The ad is amusing and Netanyahu’s reactions are appropriately absurd to drive their point home. Netanyahu wants to deflect the criticism of the Mrs.’s misadventures by portraying his opponents as petty, vindictive and foolish.
It did strike me as bit undercutting to portray a leader having time to read and feed his fish, and to never show our prime minister doing what virtually every other executive would be doing at his desk in 2015; working on his computer. There’s nary a computer in sight. Computers for decades been tools for executives to work efficiently, and the Internet is the way we all keep in touch with what's going on locally and globally. To be out of the cyberspace loop is to be out of touch.
And while the bottle scandal shouldn't really be the basis of our voting decisions, it does make us shake our heads in disbelief. Does Mrs. Netanyahu not understand that the bottle-deposit refunds don’t belong to her? Critics have been charging that Netanyahu’s active or tacit support of his wife’s alleged abuse of residence staff and his failure to stop her alleged overspending and antics reflects his poor judgment, and maybe so.
But I would agree that Sara Netanyahu should not be the main issue of this election. And the video makes this point – its main point – well and in an amusing fashion.
The real joke is that the prime minister charges his opponents with trying to distract the voters from the real issues, while he has not even published a political platform for anyone to debate (for the second election in a row). Where is his plan for resolving our conflict with the Palestinians? Where is his final status map for the Territories and the settlements? How will he fix Israeli education or our relationship with the U.S. president? And how is his economic plan going to tackle the massive poverty and income gap in Israeli society?
I was entertained, but I’m not sure I’m buying Mr. Security or the harassed leader.
Don Futterman taught a course in Analyzing Political Campaigns & Propaganda at the Lowy School of Tel Aviv University for ten years. He is currently the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund and can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.