In Israeli Election Ads, to Stir up the Base, Anything Goes

JERUSALEM — Israeli politics is not subtle. Threats are always existential, opponents are out to destroy everything voters hold dear, and the enemies aiming rockets at residential neighborhoods from the Galilee to the Gaza periphery can seem only scarcely more menacing than the supposed enemies within.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu polling neck and neck against Benny Gantz, a former army chief, riling up the base is as important as persuading anyone still on the fence. Right-wing parties talk tough about terrorists and liberal jurists; left-wing parties vie to sound like the most authentic peace-loving progressives; and centrists try to show that the parties to the left and right of them are unreasonable.

Just take a look at the commercials targeting voters on social media as the election next Tuesday draws near. They are in Hebrew and Arabic, but much of what is shown in the ads requires little or no translation. Let’s move from the political right to the left.

A fear of letting any right-wing or religious votes be wasted on a splinter party spurred Mr. Netanyahu to broker a deal that could allow one such splinter, the extremist anti-Arab party Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, into his next governing coalition. But how does that party appeal to voters?

With absurdist satire, of course: An Israeli soldier is confronted with a knife-wielding Palestinian attacker, but before he can shoot in self-defense, a military lawyer — tape measure in hand — intercedes to make sure he adheres to rules of engagement that Jewish Power considers too restrictive.

The New Right party emerged to advance the careers of Naftali Bennett, the education minister, and Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister. Ms. Shaked has pushed the Israeli Supreme Court to the right, particularly over settlement of the West Bank. She wants to keep her job and continue that work; Mr. Bennett wants to become defense minister.

Their ads have often been lighthearted, though some jokes have misfired. But their core messages can be seen in two more sober-minded videos. In one, Mr. Bennett aggressively sticks up for Israel in interviews with Western and Arab journalists, showing he believes the best defense is a good offense.

In another, Ms. Shaked plants herself outside an unspecified Jewish settlement outpost and replays familiar criticisms by settlers’ opponents, which she dismisses as “background noise.” Then she tells voters to “settle down — I still have a lot to do here.” A headline promises that “Shaked will tame the High Court.”

The Russian immigrants who voted en masse for Avigdor Lieberman, the former defense minister, are not as potent a political force anymore, and polls show Mr. Lieberman’s career and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, are in peril. To survive, he offers a blunt slogan: “Both right-wing and secular.”

Driving home the second half of that formula, Mr. Lieberman highlights his battle to end the decades-old exemption from military service for the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, whose rabbis have fought tooth and nail to preserve it.

You don’t need to understand the prayers to grasp that men with sidecurls in olive drab and with rifles at their feet are, as Mr. Lieberman assures voters, “the worst nightmare” of the Haredi rabbis.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party is putting out ads at the fastest clip, sometimes several a day, with President Trump frequently playing a supporting role. Mr. Gantz, the center-right candidate, is invariably belittled by a sneering announcer as “weak left.”

Here, Likud taunts Mr. Gantz for his poor performance in a recent TV interview, and his No. 2, Yair Lapid, for saying Mr. Netanyahu was wrecking Israel’s ties with the United States. Guess who we see in the very next clip bestowing upon Mr. Netanyahu a big political prize? Hint: It takes place in the White House. “It’s too much for them,” the ad says of the challengers. “Netanyahu: Strong. Right. Successful.”

Mr. Gantz’s ads, like his campaign, have vacillated between making the most of his rough-hewed military background and trying to dress him up like a slick politician. His Blue and White party’s most effective ads may be those in which he surrounds himself with his top running mates — two other former army chiefs and Mr. Lapid — and talks turkey about what needs to be changed and why Mr. Netanyahu needs to go.

In this spot, titled “A change in priorities,” the specifics are interesting enough. Mr. Gantz says he does not need any lectures from Mr. Netanyahu on security or strength. Mr. Lapid says the rise in the cost of prescription drugs could have been offset by canceling the “superfluous plane” — an Israeli Air Force One — that Mr. Netanyahu “insisted on buying for himself.”

But the words are less important than the visuals: tough guys sitting around plotting how they are going to take down Mr. Netanyahu and fix what is ailing their country. That job has indeed been too much for those who have challenged Mr. Netanyahu in the past, but their message is that together they can pull it off.

The once-mighty Labor party has shrunk to a wisp of its old self, largely because of the rank and file’s disenchantment with the party’s current leader, Avi Gabbay. But Labor still has some moves: Its ads ridiculing Mr. Netanyahu have been the most cutting and the quickest to capitalize on the news.

With Israelis from the Gaza border to the suburbs of Tel Aviv routinely running for cover, Labor is hammering Mr. Netanyahu — widely known by his nickname, “Bibi” — for allowing Hamas to get away with firing rockets into Israel. “No security. No peace,” this ad says furiously, over images of blazing farmland and cowering children. “No reason to vote for Bibi.”

In a choice that could prove either canny or just plain out of touch, Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, the left-wing secular party that supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians, makes a show of her urbane Tel Aviv lifestyle, asking what kind of Israel voters want to see after the election: a darker, more isolated and violent one, or an Israel of justice, freedom and equality?

She points to battles for gay rights and affordable housing, laments the rise of the right wing, shows herself meeting President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and embraces the “leftist” label, saying the only way Israel can reverse the path it is on is if people who think like her vote for a “strong left that will have confidence in itself.”

The strongest Arab party, Hadash-Taal, actually includes both Palestinian citizens and Jewish Israelis, and it is running a Hebrew-language ad that powerfully addresses anti-Arab incitement by Mr. Netanyahu, other right-wing leaders and ordinary Israelis.

You do not need to know what is being said; suffice it to say that when you hear the word “Aravim,” or Arabs, it is being used in ways that the people on the screen, whether Arab or Jew, would find hurtful.

Many Arab citizens of Israel are sitting out the election, partly because the chief alternative to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Gantz, entered the campaign by boasting about the numbers of Palestinian militants he killed as commander of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. And a low Arab turnout, paradoxically, could sink Mr. Gantz’s chances of toppling Mr. Netanyahu.

In this Arabic-language ad, Hadash-Taal, which would likely support a Gantz-led government, wields his commercial against him, saying that 530 children were also killed in the Gaza war. “Keep your voice clean,” it pleads, by voting for Hadash-Taal — not for a man with “the blood of Gaza’s children” on his hands.

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