Op-Ed by Yuval Karniel
Elections in Israel will be held on March 17, and the country is seeing an unprecedented wave of campaign ads. For the first time in Israel, political candidates are making intensive use of new media, mainly through videos on YouTube and social networks. By using short witty clips, the parties are trying to attract voters with amusing gimmicks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are no exception. Recently, for example, one of the most highly rated videos showed Sara Netanyahu in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem walking around and pointing out the deteriorating state of the residence –paint peeling in the kitchen, shabby carpets, and water dripping from the ceiling.
The video was meant to be taken seriously, but was quickly remodeled into a parody by the highest rated entertainment television program in Israel, Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country), which earns a 30-percent viewership on the main channel in Israel.
The prime minister has successfully used new media to his advantage, and has been able, through brief clips, to steal the show and the attention of the public. In these videos, there are amusing and esoteric elements.We have had the privilege of watchingthe prime minister act in the role of a babysitter as well as a preschool teacher trying to keep order on the playground of the State of Israel. We have seen the finance minister, Naftali Bennett, dress up like an irreverent Tel Aviv hipster. And we have heard the dubbed voice of Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition, reincarnated as a deep bass voice, in contrast to his usual high-pitched voice.
While all these ads provide some comic relief for a country under tremendous stress, there is a sense of doom about them. All of these routines merely serve to expose the absence of real debate and a true and thorough discourse on the real issues of the day.
Unfortunately, even though the elections are less than a month away, most of the major parties, including Netanyahu’s, have yet to formulate any comprehensive and coherent plan about dealing with the most pressing issues facing the country. These issues include the Iranian nuclear threat, negotiations with the Palestinians, the fate of the Gaza Strip, and the steep hike in the prices of residential homes in Israel.
When the political atmosphere becomes mostly entertainment, the main star is the one who is most famous, most familiar –in this case, Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a recent media study in Israel, more than 30 percent of daily media coverage in the country has been focused on Netanyahu, while only around 10 percent has been given to the next in line, Herzog, and even less to Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, the leaders of the other large parties.
It is true that much of the focus on Netanyahu is critical and negative, mainly centering on his recent speech to the U.S.Congress, which he delivered without Obama’s cooperation. He has also been facing negative publicity due to recent disclosures about his family’s use of public monies for personal expenses.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s centrality and prominence confers upon him the advantage of being the main star of the elections – especially when it is all about entertainment and in essence nothing is serious.
Netanyahu is conspicuously supported by the most widely read newspaper in Israel, “Israel Today,” which is owned by his good friend Sheldon Adelson. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is constantly attacking the media and arguing that it is against him. Presumably, he is hoping to discourage the media from being too critical of him and his actions, and trying to portray the media as liberal and leftist and therefore not reliable when it critiques him.
The prime minister and his right-wing supporters are refraining from any serious discussion about the real issues, and are relying on cute spoofs and attacks on the media.
Despite all the confusion, and the amusing videos, the only important issues in this election are power and security. On this front, Netanyahu has a lot of support, since the country has not yet forgotten the war of this past summer and never forgets that it faces existential threats from its neighbors. Netanyahu is taking advantage of this fear, which does not require verbalization, discussion, or explanation. The election campaign of humor, innuendo, and YouTube videos serves this purpose perfectly.
Yuval Karniel is a senior lecturer of Media, Culture and Communication at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at IDC, Israel, where he gives courses on Media Law, Ethics and Policy. He was a member of the board of Israel broadcasting authority (IBA) and the chair of the ethics committee. He is the author of “Breach of Trust in Corporations” (2001) and “The Laws of the Commercial Media” (2003). He is a Founder of the Israeli Movement for Freedom of Information and co- chair of the content hub at IDC.