JERUSALEM -- Viewers of Israel Television's main news show listened Thursday to a report on a finance minister's dispute with a banking chief while their screens showed two sumo wrestlers butting each other.
Earlier in the week, they listened to news of the visit to Washington by the Israeli foreign minister, but saw pictures only of minister Ehud Barak's shoes and hands.
These are the odd sights of Israel's official election campaign, when politicians vanish from their usual perches on the nightly news.
For three weeks before the election, newscasters may not broadcast the voice or picture of any candidate for office, from the prime minister to the most obscure hopeful.
"It's a very stupid rule," said Rafiq Halabi, chief editor of the Channel 1 Israel TV news. "We can't do news, we can't cover events. We can't do anything that smells of the campaign."
Israeli voters will vote May 29 to choose between incumbent Prime Minister Shimon Peres or challenger Benjamin Netanyahu to lead the country. They also will select the political parties to make up the next Knesset, or parliament.
The election will be crucial to the course of events in the Middle East, and much of the campaign centers around serious issues of the peace process and Israelis' feelings of safety. But voters won't hear the candidates talk about those issues on the broadcast news.
The "no-voices, no-faces" rule is a holdover from Israel's pre-television days, when the only visual news came from newsreels shown at cinemas.
The rule was made because incumbents scheduled a spurt of ribbon-cuttings and inaugurations for the newsreels around election time.
"Now everything's forbidden," said Zvi Lidar, a spokesman for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. "You're not allowed to even interview a man on the street who says the Likud is the best party or that Labor paves the roads like nobody before."
Lest anyone forget the candidates' faces, they are all over the half-hour time slot allotted each night for political parties
to broadcast their campaign advertisements.
The ads are the popcorn to the main show of politics, Israel's national sport. People watch the advertisements, commentators
analyze them, comedians spoof them. But the experts say they change few, if any, opinions.
"It's not like in America, where you have this vast bulk of people who are not involved in politics and are prime targets for a campaign," said Hannoch Smith, the dean of Israeli public opinion pollsters.
"The Israeli public is overwhelmingly involved on a daily basis with political matters. They listen to an average of 2.5 news broadcasts a day. They know in what political camp they belong," he said. "Politics here is super-serious."
The average turn-out at elections is officially 75 percent to 80 percent of Jewish voters, but the voter rolls list many Israelis who live abroad and don't vote. The actual turnout is estimated at closer to 90 percent of those in the country.
Few swayed by campaign ads
Only about 9 percent of Israeli voters describe themselves as "undecided" at the beginning of this campaign, and few of them are likely to be swayed by campaign ads, said Smith.
"It seems like an enormous amount of money going after a very few people," he said of the advertising.
But each year, the campaign ads become more slick, more extravagant, with more elaborate productions by the hired public relations companies.
The Labor Party campaign ads, for example, began Wednesday with sunny scenes of happy Israeli youths, cooing babies, and trusting children.
The Labor Party chief, Shimon Peres, 72, was shown smiling, surrounded by adoring crowds, being kissed by a disproportionate number of young women in skimpy clothes.
"The hidden message: If you're young and beautiful, vote for me. If you're old and homely, you must be supporting the other guy," mused Herb Keinon, writing in the Jerusalem Post.
The cast irked others, too. The use of children in the ads is "political pedophilia," complained Yitzhak Kadman, of the National Council for the Child. "It was a frighteningly cynical exploitation of children."
But if the Peres ads contained an excess of youthful exuberance, the ads of Likud bloc's candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, were criticized as dull.
To appear statesman-like, Netanyahu talked somberly with a library backdrop, "like Robert Mitchum playing Ronald Reagan," wrote newspaper critic Sima Kadmon.
Both parties called upon the dead: Peres was escorted in many of his ads by his assassinated predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, and Netanyahu brought out old film clips to suggest the late Likud hero Menachem Begin would have voted for him.
The ads are set to a score of musical slogans that will be repeated thousands of times on television and radio.
"Every four years, the parties mobilize all their intellectual skills and produce a series of TV jingles," concluded Nahum Barnea, the political reporter of the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot.
"It will probably disappoint them to learn they don't get very high ratings," Nachman Shai, director of Israel's Channel 2 television, said yesterday.
About 28 percent of the viewers tuned in to the political ads, he said.
"Boring, boring, boring," judged Channel 1's editor Halabi.
In previous elections, television viewers were trapped. They had one channel to watch. And the campaign ads were slicker and more exciting than much of what they saw on that channel.
But in the past five years, 65 percent of Israeli homes have been wired for satellite cable channels.
They now can get news and entertainment from stations ranging from America to Italy to Russia. How many will watch Peres talk about the new Middle East when they can switch to Pamela Anderson on "Baywatch"?
Peres is on CNN
"If they want to see Peres, they can see him on CNN or Sky News. They don't need us," said Halabi. Indeed, cable stations and videotapes take an average of 45 percent share of the viewers, said Shai.
In the meantime, Israel's television news editors are casting about for other items to replace the usual routine of politics.
"We're discovering a whole wide world out there," said Halabi, dourly.
"We now cover Liberia and Bangladesh and Pakistan like we never had before."
Pub Date: 5/11/96