TEL AVIV, Israel — The gloves are off, the audience is watching and the bell for round one has just rung.
Yes, political fight fans — it's show time from now until the Israeli general election takes place on March 28.
Why show time? Because every evening until the big day, 31 political parties will use the small screen to fight for every vote, hoping to deliver a knockout blow by means of the TV ads for which Israeli political campaigns have become noted.
The craziest ads are most common among minor parties, particularly those on the left. However, the three major blocs — Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, Kadima, headed by Ehud Olmert, and Labor, headed by Amir Peretz — pull very few punches in their effort to win over voters in the center while all promising the same thing: peace without compromising on security. (Kadima was the sure favorite ahead of the election, but since its founder, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was felled by a massive stroke Jan. 4, Kadima’s poll numbers have been slowly dropping, though they remain in the lead.)
Battling it out on TV
Ale Yarok (“green leaf”) aims to represent liberal Israelis. Very liberal. The party wants to legalize cannabis, prostitution, gambling and gay marriage.
One of its commercials shows a beautiful wedding, with close-up shots of a woman's high heels running toward her spouse-to-be. Turns out the spouse is another woman. With the holy city of Jerusalem as the wedding’s backdrop, the women embrace with a juicy kiss as graphics proclaim the “right of freedom and self-determination.”
Meanwhile, Hetz (“arrow”), a party with an anti-religious agenda, shows two animal puppets in their ad, one a goat representing a religious Israeli and the other a cow, representing a secular citizen.
Both are standing, waiting at a bus station. Suddenly, a huge sack with "Army" written on it falls from the sky right on the cow’s head, followed by a sack representing school tuition. Finally, the cow is buried under a massive bag marked "tax." “Oh," the cow moans, "life is difficult.” The imagery reflects common complaints that orthodox Jews are able to escape usually compulsory military service by claiming that they are involved in religious studies (and that they receive more government handouts than other sections of the population).
Meretz, another left-wing party, also pursued an anti-religious path, but with a feminist twist. Its ad shows two men dressed up as sperm sitting in an airport terminal. When it becomes time to board their plane, one of the sperm decides to stay behind because he is scared — scared of being born as a woman.
“In the army I will be harassed," he complains. "The rabbinical authority will spit on me and at work I will be exploited and paid less than any man.”
The other sperm responds: “O.K., relax, honey.”
"Hey, don’t you call me honey,” shouts the scared sperm.
As for the major parties, their ads tend to be more sober, though Labor did not shy away from some old-style trickery in their effort to win over voters. Using news bites of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and current British Prime Minister Tony Blair as they discuss raising the minimum wage, they try to drive home their claim that the economy has suffered under Likud.
Other side of the spectrum
Rightist parties, too, tend to take a more restrained approach, though they are not above pulling at the heart strings.
For example, Mafdal, which represents a portion of the nation's religious Jews, shows an ad in which a soldier on a home visit is having a bitter debate with his younger sister. He is trying to defend the role of the army against Palestinian terrorists but is being accused of taking part in the relocation of Jews from their settlements. The party's point: That the government's policies toward the settlers and its use of the army to enforce them is tearing Jewish families apart
Israeli Arabs also are making their mark, with five parties battling for votes. Their ads, too, tend to be somewhat conventional.
In one, produced by Da-am, a party seeking to represent working-class voters, leader Asama Agbarieh talks to day laborers making their way to work by bus and foot. Later, she is seen standing in front of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament building) asking in Arabic and Hebrew for support so she can protect them and provide more job opportunities.