Haifa, Israel — The debate was not televised. The participants did not sit on a stage in front of an auditorium under bright lights. Nor were Israel’s major candidates present.
Instead, five representatives of Israeli political parties sat at a folding table in a classroom of perhaps 100 students at a Haifa college. One representative was the second-ranking member of his political faction and a onetime runner-up in the balloting for prime minister. Another was a minor Israeli celebrity: the leader of last year’s social justice protests.
At one point during the debate, Rabbi Shai Peron of the new, centrist Yesh Atid Party criticized Amram Mitzna, the former prime ministerial hopeful, for his past defeats.
“I’m not in your yeshiva,” Mitzna shot back. “I don’t need to answer your question.”
Welcome to the Israeli campaign, a far more informal, intimate and legally circumscribed affair than what unfolds in the United States.
Instead of billion-dollar campaigns, Israeli parties make do with budgets in the low millions or sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars – almost all of it publicly funded. Foreign donations are allowed only during internal party primaries, and general election campaign donations are limited to about $500 per household. Television ads are permitted only a few weeks before the elections, and only at designated times.
To sidestep these restrictions, parties increasingly are turning to social media, Facebook in particular. Many politicians, and almost all the major party leaders, have an active Facebook page. Some use it as a virtual soapbox, posting several paragraphs at a time that explain particular policies or berate their rivals ahead of the Jan. 22 elections.
With a dozen parties expected to enter Knesset, including several new ones, Israeli Facebook political discourse is a free-for-all.