The parties' electioneering broadcasts
debuted yesterday and for the next few days will attract some interest. But those who will focus attention on these pugnacious productions will mostly be journalists. For the parties this will primarily be a great ratings contest. They will either seek to dodge controversy or spark it, depending on their prospects thus far.
According to conventional political wisdom, the daily attack and rebuttal rite marks the removal of kid gloves, the end of preliminary sparring and the opening of the actual bout.
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The importance the parties ascribe to this most combative phase of the campaign is evident from the vast sums earmarked for TV spots in particular.
In some respects, this is only to be expected. Gone are the days of speechifying in town squares or even of mass rallies in sports stadiums. The showdown arena is the electronic village on screen.
But is it really effective? Electioneering fare used to be hot stuff several decades ago, when we had a single television channel to which everyone was tuned and the wit of scriptwriters was the talk of the town the next day. No more so.
It's now questionable to what extent the televised fisticuffs are even watched. The assumption is that after the first evening, fewer and fewer Israelis tune in, unless they are incurable political addicts.
No longer novel, these broadcasts offer few attractions unless one of the parties delivers a particularly adroit blow to its leading rival. But the effect of even the cleverest ploy is short-lived. Experts doubt whether astute copywriting can actually win over new voters. It may reinforce the allegiance of those already converted to a particular political creed, which may not be a total waste of time when political distinctions are increasingly blurred, yet the net electoral gain to the parties is limited.
So why are they making such an effort? It's almost as if this were de rigueur - that's how the battle is waged. Campaigners are set in their ways, bound to ritual custom. Hence, they fight over each second of airtime, but then most of them do not put it to proper use.
Exorbitant outlays of cash and energy are invested in catchy jingles, fluff and slogans. Most party mantras tend to be shallow and demagogic. Issues aren't tackled and answers aren't suggested. Some of the ads, particularly from the more ideological parties from different parts of the spectrum, do tackle issues to some degree. But even these efforts are half-hearted and cannot completely shake the orthodoxy that dictates an ample sprinkling of political glitz and fluff.
On the whole, then, electronic electioneering has proven to be an extravagant exercise in gimmickry. It no doubt constitutes the most lucrative opportunity for public relations firms, publicists and political consultants to make a living. Our fear, however, is that the basic premise of this approach is that the voters aren't very discerning. The appeal is generally to the lowest common denominator.
We deserve better, much better.
Israel's electorate isn't being asked to judge a trivia show or an entertainment competition, but to pick its leadership. It has been claimed in the past, and not without merit, that leading a country like Israel is the most difficult and demanding job in the world. In the current geopolitical straits - with Iran aspiring to nukes and Hamas ascendant - Israel cannot afford to gamble. If ever issues were crucial in a campaign, they are now.
An appeal for transparency and candor on the part of politicians may sound naive. We nevertheless urge candidates to address the issues rather than avoid them with gimmicks dictated by pollsters and PR strategists. Who knows, an ad campaign that deals intelligently with substance might be the best "gimmick" of all.
The purpose of injecting more substantive discussion into the campaign might usefully be served furthermore by a televised debate featuring the three main prime-ministerial aspirants. Though such debates themselves can, admittedly, be flawed, they are better than nothing. Shunning confrontation and challenge may seem tactically prudent, but it can be a sign of political weakness as much as strength, and is certainly falls short of the fullest democratic practice.