The Americanization of Israeli elections

Dueling television ads show U.S. influence

May 04, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The television spots of bomb-blackened cars and wailing ambulance sirens evoked the 1996 spring of terror in Israel, a time of mayhem and death that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't want voters to forget.

"Remember who promised to stop this and kept his word," says the voice on the political advertisement that aired Sunday night. "Only Netanyahu brings security."

With polls showing Ehud Barak, his chief opponent, in the lead, the prime minister gave the go-ahead to air the terror ads and yesterday found himself and his American campaign advisers at the center of a political uproar over the use of such searing images in the two weeks before the May 17 election.

Bereaved parents of terror victims demonstrated outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, accusing him of exploiting the public's fears for political gain. Other victims of terror, however, reluctantly praised the 49-year-old Netanyahu.

"If we don't talk about this subject, then what do we talk about?" asked a solemn Uri Dasberg, whose daughter and son-in-law were killed in a terrorist attack one month after Netanyahu's upset victory in June1996. "The most important thing is what happened should not happen again."

Critics also pointed the finger at Netanyahu's chief political strategist, American consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, who arrived in Israel this weekend on one of his scheduled campaign trips, helped devise Netanyahu's 1996 "fear in the streets" campaign that led to the defeat of Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, and he is an architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

Motti Kirshenbaum, a liberal commentator for the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv, suggested that Netanyahu "would exhume the bodies of the dead" if it worked to his advantage. "That is how it is when nothing is going right, and when Finkelstein's magic tricks aren't worth a thing," he wrote.

Netanyahu's campaign aides defended the Sunday TV spot -- although Israel Radio reported that it would not be shown last night.

"The ad was designed as a useful illustration of Labor's failures and Netanyahu's successes," said George Birnbaum, an aide to Finkelstein in Israel.

The terror ad is the latest in a series of election campaign commercials that began airing last week. The bank of commercials, promoting the top three contenders for prime minister and the country's main political parties, identified the key election issues in a style that reflects the American political consultants at work here.

Security is the issue

For Israelis, who have fought five wars and endured decades of terrorism, security tops the agenda. In his opening-night ad, Netanyahu asks Israel's 4.3 million voters, "Do you feel safer today than you felt three years ago?" The question framed the election contest in a simple, direct way.

That, too, bears the Finkelstein stamp, although in a more subtle way than the terror ad.

"He [Finkelstein] will play on our fears in a way that always works in Israel because we have real dangers here and risks," said Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Peres.

A series of bombings in the spring of 1996 killed more than 100 people, unhinged the candidacy of Peres and rocked the 2-year-old peace process with the Palestinians. A television ad scripted then by Finkelstein's team paired Peres with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a chilling image for Israelis mourning their dead.

Netanyahu won, albeit by less than a percentage point, and since his election, terrorist attacks have subsided. Whether or not the decrease is directly due to Netanyahu's hard-line policies is beside the point. The question posed by Netanyahu requires a yes or no answer. And most Israelis would probably answer, "Yes, they feel safer."

"In the last 10 years, Israel is going through a very speedy process of Americanization," said Yoram Peri, a Hebrew University communications professor who tracks the changing nature of Israeli politics. "It began in 1992. It increased dramatically in 1996 when Netanyahu introduced new methods."

In the past, Labor didn't grasp the influence of "media-centered or television-centered politics," said Peri. "Now they understand it." The ads of Netanyahu's chief opponent, Labor leader Barak, focus on the 57-year-old retired general's vast experience in the military, including his days in an elite commando unit. Barak has hired two American political consultants, the wily James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenberg, both of whom worked for President Clinton.

Barak's wooing of the country's Russian immigrant voters and his emphasis on Israel's declining economy are attributed to the American team. For example, Barak's distinguished Army career is well known to native Israelis. But Barak's American strategists argued that Israelis from the former Soviet Union were less aware of his status as Israel's No. 1 soldier.

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