Democratic elections have always had their fair share of personal attacks, and Israel’s are no exception. In keeping with this tradition in the run-up to the country’s September election, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been posting short ads mocking his rivals on the center-left. His latest target: Yair Lapid, co-head of the opposition Blue and White party, which tied Netanyahu’s Likud in the previous election.
On Monday, the Likud leader posted an ad to all his social media accounts mocking Lapid’s command of English. The video juxtaposed a short clip of the Blue and White leader being interviewed by CNN this past week with one of Netanyahu addressing the United Nations. The content is typical for this genre: a decontextualized eight-second snippet of Lapid saying “uh” in between words, like countless other interviewees, designed to underscore Netanyahu’s own communications credentials. (Interested viewers can head here for the full Lapid interview, in which he ably handles CNN host Christiane Amanpour’s questions, albeit with a pronounced Israeli accent.)
Unfortunately for an ad intended to emphasize Netanyahu’s English prowess, however, whoever put it together clearly didn’t know English. In the CNN clip, Lapid says: “The political fight or conundrum in Israel is no longer between the right and left, but between the right and the center.” Netanyahu’s ad transcribes the word “conundrum” as “conuntrum” in Hebrew and highlights it with question marks, as though it’s made up:
After Netanyahu tweeted the ad, Likud’s official spokesman publicly mocked Lapid, claiming there was an ongoing bet in the party office over what the invented word actually meant:
במטה הליכוד פתחנו התערבות באשר לפרשנות המילה ״קוננטרום״. שמתי 200 דולר על מלח גס https://t.co/MaQcIE7JU9
— יונתן אוריך (@jonatanu) July 22, 2019
“Conundrum,” of course, is a real word, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as a “a confusing and difficult problem or question.” As in: “Likud’s spokesman faces a conundrum in how to explain to his boss why he posted such a hilariously inept attack ad.” Instead of demonstrating that Lapid didn’t know English, the Likud campaign instead demonstrated that its people didn’t—as Lapid gleefully pointed out.
— יאיר לפיד Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) July 22, 2019
While this might seem like a somewhat silly tempest in a social media teapot, the debate over Lapid’s English actually has real electoral implications. For many Israeli voters, Netanyahu’s command of English has served as a proxy for his assumed expertise in handling foreign affairs, and particularly Israel’s crucial relationship with the United States. (Israelis rarely consider that Netanyahu’s repeated appearances in the American arena may have actually backfired by making him more of a known partisan political quantity, and thus more despised among Democratic voters than if he hadn’t prominently tangled with Barack Obama or tangoed with Donald Trump.)
Seeking to blunt Netanyahu’s perceived edge, his various rivals on the left, right and center—from Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and Lapid, to the New Right’s Naftali Bennett—have sought to demonstrate their English bona fides. Gantz delivered an address at last March’s AIPAC conference. Bennett has made regular international TV appearances. The purpose of these efforts are less to persuade overseas audiences than they are to appeal to domestic ones. And if Netanyahu’s attack ad is any indication, he is aware of these attempted encroachments on his territory and intends to rebut them forcefully. Whether the rebuttals are accurate, it seems, is of secondary concern.