It may sound a tad naive, but political campaigns are, in essence, a time of hope.
Sure, there’s mudslinging and scare tactics, accusations and allegations, and all the rest of the snark and spittle that’s part and parcel of the modern art of political persuasion. But fundamentally, successful campaigns must radiate a sense of promise, some sunny disposition that somehow soothes and inspires. Think “morning in America.” Think “yes we can.”
In Israel, however, where, next week, voters will be asked to decide between two failed former prime ministers and a decent-if-unthrilling politician associated with the current cabinet’s crises and corruptions, hope is a thing with tar and feathers, driven out of town by an angry mob. With all the major candidates having already been badly bruised in the arena of public opinion, Jerusalem’s spin doctors, it seems, have replaced the sublime with the absurd.
Take, for example, the Labor Party. Once omnipotent, Israel’s founding political party will almost certainly be reduced to third place, behind Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud and Tzipi Livni’s Kadima. The party’s candidate, Ehud Barak, has, until recently, suffered from a reputation as an arrogant and aloof man who badly bungled his first turn in office. The popular war in Gaza, as well as a well-received appearance in a satirical comedy show, thawed Barak’s frozen image somewhat, leading Labor’s political strategists to go for broke and play the humor card down the line.
The party’s ads, then, feature comedians playing a car mechanic, a building contractor, and other professionals not exactly known for their trustworthiness and candor. In each case, Labor’s faux laborers look straight at the camera and opine on why Barak would’ve been terrible had he chosen their vocation instead of statesmanship. Barak, says the contractor, “couldn’t have plastered hummus onto a matzah. Instead of drywalling our existential problems, putting on a layer of paint. . . he gives you the truth.”
“Come on, Ehud,” concludes the contractor, “the truth is not such a great design element.” As in other ads, he then grinningly sings out the party’s new slogan: if you don’t lie, how would you get elected? In Hebrew, it not only rhymes, but also sends a very clear message, portraying Livni and Netanyahu as image-obsessed fibbers who would say anything to get ahead.
Just in case you didn’t get the message, Labor belabors the point with an outdoor ad campaign, featuring an unflattering photo of its leader alongside alternating slogans: “Barak is not nice,” says one. “Barak is not your buddy,” reads another. A third claims, “Barak is not trendy.” Barak’s bet, then, is to try and reinvent himself as the Doctor House of Israeli politics, a socially awkward but brutally honest genius whose diagnoses alone could save the nation from its gruesome and mysterious maladies.
But Barak is not the only one looking across the sea for inspiration. Netanyahu, currently leading in the polls by a narrow margin, has found his own American role model: Obama, meet your new twin brother, Bibi.
Netanyahu’s Obama Offensive begun by effectively ripping off the American president’s innovative campaign website, and continued with a few television appearances in which the usually besuited Bibi tossed aside the tie for Barack-style crisp cotton shirts.
But Israel is a long way from Illinois: when Likud’s television ads were unleashed last week, they featured very little by way of change we can believe in. One ad, for example, presents Bibi as the Cassandra of Qassam rockets, juxtaposing a 2005 speech in which Netanyahu warns against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza with ominous footage—set, of course, to ominous music—of masked Hamas militiamen parading around and launching attacks.
Running for office by reminding your constituents that you had always said death and destruction were right around the corner: call it the audacity of hopelessness.
Netanyahu’s other ads fall in with the same, bleak line. One ad, titled “The Kadimatron,” shows Bibi as a masked marionette, and features soundbites from key members of Kadima speaking about terrorism and security and sounding a lot like the Likud leader; as they speak, the Bibi puppet takes off his mask to reveal his rivals’ true faces. The idea: all the other politicians are really Bibi in disguise. Another fine creation, entitled, roughly, “Too Much for Her to Handle,” features two female silhouettes, each making contradictory statements and each turning out, eventually, to be the same woman, Livni, who currently trails Netanyahu by a few points. Too subtle for you? You may enjoy the ever-effective “Livni: 10 Years in the Knesset, 0 Accomplishments.”
Given Likud’s caustic attacks, one would expect Livni to retaliate with fierce determination, highlighting her storied career in the Mossad, the government, and other branches of civil service. And, in one key ad, she does: featuring a blurry-faced candidate, the ad’s narrator speaks of all the candidate’s accomplishments, all in the masculine form, referring to the candidate as “he.” Then, the bottom line: “Nobody,” says the narrator, bemused, “would doubt that he was fit to be Prime Minister if he wasn’t”—now the politician’s blurry face becomes clear, revealing Livni’s determined-looking mug—“a woman.” It’s hard to imagine Golda Meir using that line.
While the major parties keep things more or less mainstream, their smaller contenders, thinking they’ve got nothing to lose, are letting it all hang out. Hadash, for example, the Communist party and the only one to boast a true Jewish-Arabic parliamentary partnership, took the Benetton approach to coexistence: in its ad, titled “It’s Obvious,” a group of impossibly attractive and infinitely cool young hipsters, filmed against a deep-red background, all chuckle and say that—duh!—Hadash is, like, the only option anyone should consider. While it may or may not make much political sense, goes the silent subtext, a vote for the party would surely get you laid.
If you, dear reader, have been clicking on all of the links provided above, and enjoying the myriad political ads, let me suggest taking a brief break, maybe a short walk or a good stretch or a drink of water. Because what you are about to see next may leave you unable to do much else for a while. It’s an ad put out by the Green Leaf Party, whose only objective is to legalize cannabis. Their angle? The Holocaust. Watch it here for yourselves, complete with English subtitles. Enjoy the catchy hip-hop jingle. Cherish the dazed-looking elderly man who states, “For us, the Holocaust survivors, our moral obligation is to legalize it.” If we can’t light up a spliff, we’re given to understand, then all of that unpleasantness at Auschwitz would’ve been for naught.
The parties themselves, however, are not the only ones creating strange and compelling content this election season. Inevitably in the age of YouTube, fans of all stripes upload their own clips to the web. But unlike the politicians they support, these self-made auteurs all draw inspiration from the same person. Their hero? Obama Girl. Just as the aspiring actress made electoral waves with her paean to her favorite pol, Israel’s youngsters are hoping to do the same. And yet, the nation being its belligerent self, even this fun and frivolous pursuit has quickly turned into a small-scale battle.
It began when Sagiv Asulin, one of Likud’s rising, hawkish young stars, got a sultry fan to record her own take on Obama Girl, titled, of course, Asulin Girl. Kadima’s minions weren’t far behind with their own version, the shirtless Livni Boy. But as Amir Mizroch, a news editor at the Jerusalem Post, reports on his blog, Likud political strategist Ronnie Rimon gave user-generated content a whole new meaning when he reedited Livni Boy’s video, superimposing the face of Hizbullah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and recording a new Arabic-twanged soundtrack in which the Lebanese arch-terrorist sings a love song to Livni, the only leader, he claims, who is weak enough to allow his organization to defeat and humiliate Israel.
As Israelis go to the polls next week, these are the images that will be bouncing around in their minds. It’s of little surprise, then, that no matter who emerges as the country’s next leader, the public’s trust in politics, as a recent survey indicates, is dangerously low. Forget George Mitchell; what President Obama really needs to dispatch over to Israel is some much-needed hope.