Israel's bitter fight for votes

SUN JOURNAL

Ads: In a television blitz, parties attack their foes and play on the fears of an exhausted electorate.

January 16, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Here is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party, as portrayed by Israel's Labor Party in its latest television ad: Sharon defends himself from corruption charges by pounding his fists on a podium and yelling as the cameras roll, "Are you crazy? Are you mad?"

"Sharon," an unseen announcer says, "loses his composure under pressure."

Here, seconds later, is the Likud's response: The mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, denounces the corruption charges as "slander" and "biased gossip." The picture fades to Jerusalem's Old City to show Sharon praying at the Western Wall.

With parliamentary elections less than two weeks away, Israel's 29 political parties are offering a blizzard of ads that variously play on the electorate's fears about the right, the left, the economy, the religious, the secular and the Palestinians.

Only 28 percent of the viewers tuned into the ads when they premiered on Israel's three national television channels Jan. 7, and the number has dropped steadily since. Still, the commercials mark the final stretch of a campaign that will decide the membership of Israel's parliament and who becomes the country's next prime minister.

Political ads in Israel's electronic media are tightly regulated by law. Parties receive free airtime, but their ads are restricted to nightly periods on the three television stations. As a result, viewers can tune in to one half-hour block and watch plugs for nearly every party.

Clashing agendas and competing ideologies flash across screens in rapid-fire succession, a blur of claims and counter-claims broken only by breaks of a few seconds.

Political ads were important when they made their debut in Israel three decades ago on the country's lone television channel. Then, candidates were barred from appearing in the news media for 30 days before elections, and voters had to watch commercials to see the people running for office.

Now, cable has given the typical Israeli household more than 50 channels, but only a handful are local. Foreign movies and other shows give viewers more choices. In addition, politicians are no longer kept out of the news media spotlight.

"The real campaign is in the news bulletins and in the newspapers," says Gabi Weimann, chairman of the communications department at Haifa University, where he conducts a detailed study of the political ads.

Israeli voters choose parties, not candidates, yet most of the ads focus on personalities.

"It is [Labor Party leader Amran] Mitzna against Sharon," Weimann says, "not Labor against Likud." Still, the ads tell a story. "You can see what really bothers Israelis. You see religious problems and economic problems and civil rights problems. You can look at the Israeli agenda and see how troubled our society is."

The 29 parties vying for seats in the 120-member parliament are appealing to voters exhausted by the conflict with the Palestinians, stung by the country's faltering economy and, in some cases, concerned by corruption charges leveled against Sharon's Likud Party.

Yet, few of the ads seem to offer fresh ideas for ending the violence with Palestinians or restoring confidence in the economy. Instead, politicians are using their government-allotted airtime to attack opponents.

The main choices are a grim-faced Sharon telling voters that their nation is locked in a conflict with the Palestinians that promises to grind on and Mitzna, who is seeking a negotiated political solution that many voters believe is an old idea that has already failed.

While Sharon tries to appear as a grandfatherly figure wisely leading his people through troubled times, Mitzna is well aware that many voters see his political leanings as too far to the left. He has used much of his airtime to remind viewers that he, too, is a battle-hardened war veteran, by showing him commanding tanks as they crossed the Sinai decades ago, and flashing pictures of his medals.

One visually clever ad comes from the leftist Meretz Party, which depicts Sharon as a happy-go-lucky shepherd rounding up a wayward flock of politicians whose heads are superimposed on the bodies of sheep.

"What stench," a voice says as the caricatures bound across the screen. "They lost their way and found Sharon. So they walked, who would believe, as one herd, into the right-wing government. Meretz is not in Sharon's flock."

Even United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party that shuns television on religious grounds, has succumbed to the electronic medium.

"Torah is the difference between just another state and a Jewish state," a voice-over says, warning that Israel is losing its religious foundation. "You may marry a Jew," the ad says while showing children engaged in faith-based activities. "Your son may marry a Jew. What about your grandson?"

The Herut Party, which has been reborn as an ultra-right faction that advocates bombing the West Bank to force Palestinians to leave, tones down its rhetoric and recommends a law encouraging Arab emigration.

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