Tel Aviv – The run up to Israel’s parliamentary elections on January 22 has been a rather tepid affair. The outcome, according to opinion polls, is not in doubt and there is therefore little suspense in the proceedings.
Even the television advertisements that political parties have started airing seem to have failed to spice up the campaign.
“None of the ads could influence me to make up my mind over whom to vote for. And they were very superficial,” said an elderly Tel Aviv man. A young woman, also from the city, said the advertisements “weren’t very creative, and did not speak to me”.
Evidently, a damp campaign has resulted in dull ads and the parties have proven to be “unimaginative” in their bid to win over the roughly 31 percent of voters who remain undecided.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, worry over Iran’s nuclear programme, and economic inequality have dominated public discourse in Israel for the past several years.
But these issues are largely absent from this year’s batch of political ads, robbing the campaign of the customary emotional quotient.
Yossi Verter, a journalist with left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, voiced a similar opinion. He wrote that the ads “ran the gamut from boring, to pretentious and stereotypical – to outright racist”.
Part of the reason may be that many Israelis wonder what these upcoming elections are really about. Elections had originally been scheduled for October 2013, but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for early elections, because he believed it would have been impossible to pass a budget under the current government. Netanyahu thought early elections would guarantee a strong victory at the ballot box and bolster his leadership.
Controversial marriage ad
Some of the ads have courted controversy, despite not connecting with the voters.
Knesset member appeals Israel election ban
Perhaps the most controversial ad was one broadcast by Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party whose support mainly comes from Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. The ad ridicules Russian immigrants to Israel, showing a marriage ceremony between a Jewish Israeli man of Middle Eastern origin and a tall blonde Russian immigrant.
Viewers learn that the woman, Marina, is not Jewish when she is depicted doing a fast-track religious conversion at the altar as she receives a fax from the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party verifying her conversion. It is only after the couple is married that the groom realises his fate is sealed, and refuses to kiss Marina.
The ad has sharpened disagreements between Shas and Yisrael Beitenu, a party supported by many Russian-speaking Israelis, over civil marriages and religious conversions.
But the central election committee ruled the ad too offensive to remain on air.
“I thought that in and of itself, a generalised sense of hurt is possible, which is best avoided insofar as is possible,” said Elyakim Rubinstein, the chairman of the central election committee and supreme court justice, about the advertisement.
Shas’ leader, Arieh Atias, told Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot that the advertisement was not supposed to be harmful, but instead aimed to show Shas’ views on maintaining a Jewish identity in the Jewish state.
“The ad isn’t supposed to hurt anyone … We see its effectiveness and tens of thousands have already viewed it on YouTube,” Atias said. The official campaign ad on YouTube has garnered more than 200,000 views to date.
Lieberman’s national anthem
Meanwhile, Balad – an Arab-Israeli nationalist party – released an animated ad criticising former foreign minister and Yisrael Beitenu party leader Avigdor Lieberman.
But the ad campaign was censored by the election committee before it was unveiled on television.
The animation portrays Lieberman performing an Arabic song-and-dance routine to a new version of Israel’s national anthem, declaring that Arabs will now be able to sing and identify with this new adaptation. Balad’s ad is a protest against the loyalty pledge put forth by Lieberman that would have forced all non-Jews to take an oath of loyalty to the state. (Lieberman recently retracted the bill.)
“Disgracing the symbols of the state, a Jewish and democratic state, as part of any party’s election propaganda, is unacceptable to me,” Rubinstein, the chairman of the central election committee, said of Balad’s ad.
Balad responded by issuing a statement: “The disqualification of the broadcast is a continuation of the silencing and intimidation efforts against the Balad list and its constituents.”
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party showcased the prime minister’s Judaism in its ads. In one scene, he is seen orating before the United Nations about Jewish history. In another, he is praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. According to polls, Likud will likely win the upcoming elections – and most of the currently undecided voters are on the centre-left.
Under Israel election law, television stations air advertisements free of charge. Each party is allotted a certain amount of air time based on how many seats it has in the current parliament.
The first televised election advertisements in Israel aired in 1969, and enjoyed 80-90 percent viewer ratings, at a time when Israel had only one television channel. But today, less than 5 percent of Israeli households are expected to tune into the ads, according to Baruch Leshem, a lecturer of media studies at Sapir College.
Even those running for office claim they no longer see the effectiveness of these advertisements.
Alon Tal, the head of the environmentalist party Green Movement and also a current member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party, explained to Al Jazeera that the ritual of these advertisements had become a tradition in Israeli households before every election. But, he said, this round of advertisements have not carried the same weight as before, and are perhaps becoming obsolete.
With Israel’s final sprint to the ballot box the televised ads have done little or nothing to change the scepticism Israelis have about this election, in which victory for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Beitenu Party seems predetermined.