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The Americanization of Israeli elections; Dueling television ads show U.S. influence


JERUSALEM -- The television spots of bomb-blackened cars and wailing ambulance sirens evoked the 1996 spring of terror in Israel, a time of mayhem and death that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't want voters to forget.

"Remember who promised to stop this and kept his word," says the voice on the political advertisement that aired Sunday night. "Only Netanyahu brings security."

With polls showing Ehud Barak, his chief opponent, in the lead, the prime minister gave the go-ahead to air the terror ads and yesterday found himself and his American campaign advisers at the center of a political uproar over the use of such searing images in the two weeks before the May 17 election.

Bereaved parents of terror victims demonstrated outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, accusing him of exploiting the public's fears for political gain. Other victims of terror, however, reluctantly praised the 49-year-old Netanyahu.

"If we don't talk about this subject, then what do we talk about?" asked a solemn Uri Dasberg, whose daughter and son-in-law were killed in a terrorist attack one month after Netanyahu's upset victory in June1996. "The most important thing is what happened should not happen again."

Critics also pointed the finger at Netanyahu's chief political strategist, American consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein.

Finkelstein, who arrived in Israel this weekend on one of his scheduled campaign trips, helped devise Netanyahu's 1996 "fear in the streets" campaign that led to the defeat of Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, and he is an architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

Motti Kirshenbaum, a liberal commentator for the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv, suggested that Netanyahu "would exhume the bodies of the dead" if it worked to his advantage. "That is how it is when nothing is going right, and when Finkelstein's magic tricks aren't worth a thing," he wrote.

Netanyahu's campaign aides defended the Sunday TV spot -- although Israel Radio reported that it would not be shown last night.

"The ad was designed as a useful illustration of Labor's failures and Netanyahu's successes," said George Birnbaum, an aide to Finkelstein in Israel.

The terror ad is the latest in a series of election campaign commercials that began airing last week. The bank of commercials, promoting the top three contenders for prime minister and the country's main political parties, identified the key election issues in a style that reflects the American political consultants at work here.

Security is the issue

For Israelis, who have fought five wars and endured decades of terrorism, security tops the agenda. In his opening-night ad, Netanyahu asks Israel's 4.3 million voters, "Do you feel safer today than you felt three years ago?" The question framed the election contest in a simple, direct way.

That, too, bears the Finkelstein stamp, although in a more subtle way than the terror ad.

"He [Finkelstein] will play on our fears in a way that always works in Israel because we have real dangers here and risks," said Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for the Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Peres.

A series of bombings in the spring of 1996 killed more than 100 people, unhinged the candidacy of Peres and rocked the 2-year-old peace process with the Palestinians. A television ad scripted then by Finkelstein's team paired Peres with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a chilling image for Israelis mourning their dead.

Netanyahu won, albeit by less than a percentage point, and since his election, terrorist attacks have subsided. Whether or not the decrease is directly due to Netanyahu's hard-line policies is beside the point. The question posed by Netanyahu requires a yes or no answer. And most Israelis would probably answer, "Yes, they feel safer."

"In the last 10 years, Israel is going through a very speedy process of Americanization," said Yoram Peri, a Hebrew University communications professor who tracks the changing nature of Israeli politics. "It began in 1992. It increased dramatically in 1996 when Netanyahu introduced new methods."

In the past, Labor didn't grasp the influence of "media-centered or television-centered politics," said Peri. "Now they understand it." The ads of Netanyahu's chief opponent, Labor leader Barak, focus on the 57-year-old retired general's vast experience in the military, including his days in an elite commando unit. Barak has hired two American political consultants, the wily James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenberg, both of whom worked for President Clinton.

Barak's wooing of the country's Russian immigrant voters and his emphasis on Israel's declining economy are attributed to the American team. For example, Barak's distinguished Army career is well known to native Israelis. But Barak's American strategists argued that Israelis from the former Soviet Union were less aware of his status as Israel's No. 1 soldier.

The Barak ads emphasized his military record in an effort to woo the undecided among the 680,000 Russian immigrant voters. (Both candidates aired ads with Russian subtitles.)

Barak's ads also focused on Israel's high jobless rate under Netanyahu. His question to Israel's voters was: "If 100,000 Israelis have lost their jobs, why should he keep his?"

"That's pure James Carville," said Israeli commentator Amnon Lord, recalling Carville's mantra during the first Clinton campaign, "The economy, stupid."

There are other touches: there's a grainy shot of a youthful Barak receiving his platoon command from Rabin, Israel's warrior-politician who was slain by an assassin in 1995 for his support of the Oslo peace accords. The photo recalled an ad in which student leader Bill Clinton shakes hands with President John F. Kennedy.

"The Americans help focus the message, package it," said a Barak campaign aide. "They look at how to take a complex subject and present it in a clear way, how to market a person that he will look like someone you can trust, and also look presidential."

For Netanyahu, Finkelstein has sharpened the message of 1996. The ads identify Barak as "the left." They link Labor to issues that make Israelis nervous -- the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state.

The character question

Besides attacking Netanyahu's record, Barak has raised the issue of the prime minister's character. Deftly employing a film clip of Netanyahu winking, the Labor ad suggests the prime minister is deceitful and then says so: "The only plan he has is to lie."

Netanyahu's strategists, recognizing the character question, portray the prime minister in his ads as confident, wise and approachable -- a switch from his previous election persona of the strident, articulate underdog. In the security ad, Netanyahu sits comfortably in his office. He wears an open-collared shirt and navy blue V-neck sweater.

"We're no longer afraid to get on a bus, send our kids to school and go to the mall," the silver-haired Netanyahu says in soft tones. "We have security."

Yitzhak Mordechai, Netanyahu's former defense minister who quit the Likud-led government to head a new centrist party, is challenging his former boss without American consultants. "It didn't come up," said a campaign spokeswoman.

The campaign ads that aired last week focused not only on the political personalities in Israel, but on the contentious issues of the day -- the Middle East peace process, religious vs. secular, state aid to the country's ultra-Orthodox.

Despite the American influence on Israel's TV campaigns, the most talked-about political ad was designed by an Israeli for the main political party of Russian Jews, Yisrael B'Aliya. The ad points up the contentious debate over religious freedom of the mostly secular Russian immigrants and the religious Orthodox influence on daily life here.

It focuses on the control of Israel's Interior Ministry by Shas, the party of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Arab countries. The ministry determines citizenship issues, a thorny matter for many Russians who, after years of religious repression in the former Soviet Union, have trouble proving their Jewish heritage.

Invoking an ominous tone and using a Russian play on words, Yisrael B'Aliya bluntly lays out what is at stake: The Interior Ministry will be ours or Shas'.

But can any of these ads -- American-imports or Israeli-inspired -- make a difference in an election race that has the top two candidates within percentage points of each other?

High ratings

Unlike the United States, Israel strictly controls television time for political candidates. The commercials run in a block for a set period nightly during the three weeks prior to the election. When the ads premiered last Monday, they were the most highly watched television that night, said the Israel Audience Research Board.

Of the 1.5 million television households in Israel, nearly 39 percent watched the television commercials. The political spots beat out the nightly news as the most watched show -- perhaps not surprising in a country that boasts one of the highest voter turnout rates in the free world, about 80 percent. The percentage of households tuning in on subsequent nights decreased, but the ratings still hovered about 25 percent.

Friday's polls showed Barak leading Netanyahu by 8 percentage points in a head-to-head contest. With the undecided vote at about 10 percent, those Israelis may determine the winner.

"We are talking about results that are going to be 1 percent here or there. Even if you have 1 percent of 50,000 to 60,000 people who are going to be affected [by the ads], you don't need more than that," said Peri.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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