How Israel's Politicians Failed the Web Test

The Kadima party primaries are approaching, the scent of elections is in the air and you can feel it online.

The Kadima party primaries are approaching, the scent of elections is in the air and you can feel it online. Just this weekend, Tzipi Livni hastily launched her own personal Web site. Meanwhile, Arcadi Gaydamak dropped the idea and opened a blog on Tapuz, where he detailed - in fluent Hebrew and stilted English - his contributions and fights with the police international investigations unit.

Livni and Gaydamak are the latest of a long list of public figures to launch a blog or personal Web site.

Most have heard that it is a good idea to maintain contact with the public over the Internet, but a survey of their sites shows that they really don't know how to do it.

Instead of taking advantage of the medium to conduct a genuine, direct dialogue with the voters, most begin neglecting the sites shortly after launching them, or leave the updating to their aides, who report on the minister or Knesset member in the third person.

Two weeks ago, blogger Uri Katzir called on Israeli politicians to learn the medium. In a personal appeal, charmingly worded, Katzir wrote, among other things: "If you don't mind my saying so, in most cases your blogs are simply shocking, a kind of personal Pravda, egocentric, devoid of any desire to communicate with the readers at eye level. It's boring, arrogant, annoying ... when you went out on a blind date with a potential spouse, was talking about yourself in the third person the only thing that interested you?"

Katzir goes on to advise the politicians on the rules of blogs. Among other things, he suggests leaving room for the person behind the suit and using the blog to transmit more complex messages than a press release, and even suggests they respond to surfers and maintain a real dialogue.

The aides will write

Israeli politicians' obsolete, even foolish, online activities are particularly grating in the face of American political blogs.

Dr. Karine Barzilai-Nahon, the director of the University of Washington's Center for Information and Society, says the attitude to the Web is completely different there.

"American politicians see the Web as an inseparable part, even the driving force, of their campaign. The recent battle between Obama and Clinton illustrated this nicely. Obama managed to enlist around a million donors, who contributed a total of $235 million. The overwhelming majority was online."

Is there a chance that politicians in Israel will adopt Katzir's recommendations and create real blogs, the kind they can use for unmediated dialogue with voters? Hanan Cohen, a veteran Web activist, believes that if politicians are smart enough to realize this is a tool that can save them the trouble of face-to-face meetings, they will eagerly adopt it. But even he is not optimistic. In the last elections, he opened a blog for Amir Peretz, which received little traffic.

Devora Shargal, a journalist and blogger, is even less optimistic. "No, there's no chance that politicians will start writing blogs," she writes in response. "At most, their minor aides will do it, and most likely they will be careless and stammering, and seem like a communique.

In short, I'm not counting on our politicians breaking the routine." As someone who devotes "three hours on weekdays and six to eight hours on weekends, officially" to her blog, she knows that the investment in writing and maintaining a dialogue with people who respond to the posts can be deterring.

Blog responsibility

Dr. Barzilai-Nahon also doesn't believe "there is a politician today who is capable of withstanding the daily responsibility of writing a blog and adding quality content.

Benjamin Netanyahu's blog, for example, which started with great fanfare, quickly turned into a notice board for his activities."

Netanyahu moved with the times and even signed up for Tapuz's Snooz service. But the content resembles a slew of press releases, unrelated to the events that sparked them, and seems like the archive of an obsessive talkbacker.

Like Katzir, Barzilai-Nahon bemoans the fact that even politicians such as Michael Eitan and Shelly Yachimovich, who frequently update their blogs, usually do so in the third person.

"They are missing the point of the unmediated connection between the individual and his surroundings. But these politicians are in good shape. They at least are trying to create blogs. Other politicians in our elected body aren't even at the point where they know it's worthwhile to set up a Web site."