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.
On Saturday, center-left Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich posted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was operating in a “closed-off submarine.” Meanwhile, a post by right-wing Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) Chairman Naftali Bennett accused Netanyahu’s Likud Party of “distortion.”
Two days earlier, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid posted that Yachimovich would raise taxes on the middle class.
“It gives us a platform to share what we’re doing as politicians,” Stav Shaffir, the former protest leader who is now a candidate for Labor, said of Facebook. “For me, it’s the natural continuation of the protest. It creates active, aware citizenship.”
Facebook is not the only online platform Israeli political hopefuls have sought to exploit. Barred from television for the time being, the parties instead are running their spots on YouTube. Some of the ads are tightly produced, with graphics and animation, while others reflect the campaign’s casual nature. A recent Labor ad showed Yachimovich greeting supporters, unscripted, on the street. A few began singing as a car drove by, honking its horn. Videos for the front-running Likud, meanwhile, have parodied popular YouTube memes. An ad for candidate Ze’ev Elkin during the internal Likud primaries, for example, cribbed from the popular Korean “Gangnam Style” pop music video.
Aside from the videos, though, Likud has hardly been campaigning at all. Its formal campaign is expected to be launched this week, with only a month remaining until Election Day. Likud strategists say the campaign will focus on Netanyahu, known universally here by his nickname, Bibi.
For now, with a solid lead in the polls, Likud’s leaders seem happy to let their governing do the talking.
“As the governing party, they’re using government activity as the campaign,” said Tamir Sheafer, a Hebrew University political science professor. “Bibi is flying to Germany and the Czech Republic, and making decisions about building in the West Bank. This is the best campaign. It’s better than any billboards.”
Sheafer said Israel is “a few years behind the U.S.” in using social media for political purposes. The bulk of the Israeli campaign takes place in traditional media, like billboards, and on the ground. Israeli politicians host meetings in their own homes and are relatively easy to access in a country of 8 million people.
“I’m out every single night at a parlor meeting spreading the word,” Dov Lipman, a Yesh Atid candidate, told JTA. Lipman said all of his party’s candidates “have full schedules, running around the entire country,” and that the party, which is new, has 15,000 volunteers on the ground.
Minor candidates in other parties, however, are less active. Israel has a parliamentary system, so Israelis vote directly for a party, rather than for individual candidates. To make it into the 120-member Knesset, candidates don’t need to win a particular district; they just need their parties to pass a certain vote threshold. The more votes their party gets, the more seats they will occupy. That means that candidates who are not near the top of their party’s list get almost no attention, and lower-level candidates from the smaller parties have practically no chance of making it into the Knesset.
“Most of them do not have personal electoral value because the focus is on the leaders,” Sheafer said of the lower-level candidates. “So if you take No. 30 on the Likud list, nobody knows that person’s name.” (It’s Gila Gamliel.)
A Likud spokesperson said lower-level candidates stay active by running their local party offices or campaigning in nearby schools.
Coordinating an Israeli campaign is challenging, in part, because of the range of parties. Instead of having one opponent, parties must distinguish themselves from multiple ideologies, platforms and candidates.
The Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, for example, chose to target secularist Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Liberman in one ad. Liberman is pictured wearing a kippah underneath a caption that reads: “Only a strong Shas can prevent assimilation.”
In addition, there are no formal debates, and the small size of Israel’s media precludes the fact-checking and round-the-clock analysis that has come to dominate U.S. campaigns.
“It’s hard to decide who you’re going to campaign against,” said Tal Schneider, who reported on American presidential elections for the Israeli daily Maariv and now writes an Israeli politics blog. “All of those people who are running the campaign, it’s hard for them to predict what’s going to happen.”
One thing most players can agree on, however, is the need to take on the current government. Most parties have aimed blunt, critical slogans squarely at Netanyahu.
“We work very hard to very clearly state who we are and what we plan to do; it’s a challenge,” said Lipman of Yesh Atid. “It’s much easier to have a billboard saying, ‘Bibi is this problem, Shelly [Yachimovich] is this solution.’”