Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
January 18, 2013 - 1:00am


On the set here this week of Israel’s most popular political television satire show, a character impersonating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood by a large map of the region as he drew a system of fences, spiked barriers and security doors around Israel’s borders. He then slapped a sign over the country that read, “Do Not Disturb.”


The skit, typical fare for “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), was a humorous retort during this election season, when Israelis are hit with a concentrated burst of political television. Under the rules of Israel’s idiosyncratic system, the 34 parties running in the election are barred from buying television time, but are entitled to seven minutes of free airtime on each of the three main television channels.

They also get an extra two minutes for every seat the party holds in the Knesset, or Parliament. For the prime minister’s ticket, this means an hour and a half of free airtime in the two weeks before the Jan. 22 ballot.

“Our enemies are big — and brown,” said the caricatured prime minister as he pointed on the map to the shaded area representing Iran, spoofing the kind of campaigns many here consider ill suited to addressing the urgent issues facing the next government.

In his own commercials, the prime minister boasts of achievements — like completing a fence along the border with Egypt, and bringing down cellphone costs. As Israel’s election campaign heads into its final leg, the nightly blocks of state-financed party broadcasts are aimed largely at the fifth or quarter of the electorate that pollsters say remains undecided. A mainstay of Israeli campaigns since television arrived here in the 1960s, the commercials have ranged from the fright-inducing (Mr. Netanyahu’s footage of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran) to the bizarre (an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who pledges bread for a shekel, or 27 cents).

On the first night, the broadcasts went on for 75 minutes, though they more typically run for about half an hour.

Yet in a campaign devoid of American-style televised debates, Israelis are increasingly questioning whether the television broadcasts — which are the core of the campaigns — still have any relevance.

“Like a scorching interrogation in the dungeons of the Securitate, I was also ready to confess to anything,” wrote Itay Segel, a television critic for the popular newspaper Yediot Aharonot, after the first night. “The election propaganda, as always, convinces the convinced and bores the bored.”

Candidates also use social media, go on widely publicized pub crawls, visit markets and attend parlor meetings and discussion panels. But very often — and with greater impact — they find themselves the subject of sarcasm, appearing as puppets or in the form of actors impersonating them on satire shows.

In a country where the satirists say it is hard to compete with the political reality, more than twice the percentage of households in Israel watch “Eretz Nehederet,” produced by the Keshet media group, than tune in to the official election broadcasts.

“There is no doubt that the entertainment shows have more influence than the broadcasts,” said Yuval Karniel, an expert in communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “The broadcasts are redundant; there is nothing like them in the Western world.”

Embodying the quirkiness of the system, a dour-looking man in his mid-50s, Ofer Lifshitz, has been appearing on television each night to drum up support for his party, the Everlasting Covenant for the Salvation of Israel.

His message: “Nine years ago the Holy One Blessed Be He sent me to save the people of Israel who have been enslaved and persecuted by Israeli governments for generations.”

Mr. Lifshitz’s little-known party is unlikely to gain enough votes to pass the electoral threshold. Previous incarnations of the Everlasting Covenant, which used to advocate for a separation of state and religion and now calls for a constitution based on the Torah, did not. Still, Mr. Lifshitz, along with the Pirates Party and the Green Leaf-Liberal List, is allocated the same airtime as Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a recently formed centrist party led by a former television host, Yair Lapid, that is widely predicted to become a coalition partner in the next government.


The campaign broadcasts are a throwback to the days when Israel had only one, state-owned television channel. To ensure fairness, politicians were banned from the screen for two months before an election other than in the regulated blocks of campaign commercials.

Watching them was a ritual in the days when viewers had nowhere else to go, and in the 1970s and ’80s, they had ratings of up to 90 percent. But public interest has waned greatly. Over the past week, an average of about 16 percent of households tuned in.

Other than giving exposure to small and new parties and possibly influencing a few wavering voters, the impact of the television campaign is minimal, experts say. “It doesn’t influence the public or media agenda at all,” said Gabriel Weimann, a professor at the University of Haifa who has studied the issue. “But only the Knesset can abolish it, and since it gives the politicians free access to our television sets, why give it up?”

The two main commercial channels are now obligated to run the campaign broadcasts free of charge. In a small concession to modernity, the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee has cut the television campaign period from three weeks to two and no longer forces the channels to show the broadcasts at prime time.

Likud-Beiteinu’s videos have focused on Mr. Netanyahu the statesman, addressing the world from the halls of the United Nations and Congress, and standing by a map in his office pledging to cover all of Israel with the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system, to fence Israel in on all its borders and to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The panoramic shots of Jerusalem always manage to omit the landmark Muslim shrines.

Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the center-left Labor Party, tried to soften her image in her election broadcasts with a scene from her kitchen, where she showed off a freezer stocked with plastic containers of homemade chicken soup. Ms. Yacimovich has been criticized by some traditional Labor supporters for focusing solely on socioeconomic issues and not taking a stand, for example, against settlement construction in the West Bank.

On the set in Herzliya, her “Eretz Nehederet” counterpart, Helly, an abrasive, overbearing character, threw whole, unpeeled vegetables into a pot as she expounded on the best way to freeze schnitzels as opposed to freezing settlements.

The new star of this season of “Eretz Nehederet” is Naftali Bennett, the leader of the rightist Jewish Home Party, which has been climbing in the polls. He appears as a computer-generated wild, messianic settler who is made to look like an appealing guy-next-door, but whose intrinsic extremism keeps slipping out.

Apparently gratified at having made it onto the show, the real Mr. Bennett posted a picture of his slightly crazed “Eretz Nehederet” character on his Facebook page.

“As citizens we often cry while writing our comedy,” said Muli Segev, the chief producer of “Eretz Nehederet.” “The reality is very depressing. Campaigns here are always about everything but what is going to happen.”


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