Israeli campaigning revels in dirt, avoids real issues
Israel goes to the polls next month facing Middle East turmoil and growing diplomatic isolation, but campaigning has been dominated by the lifestyle of the prime minister and his wife.
Jerusalem: Israel goes to the polls next month facing Middle East turmoil and growing diplomatic isolation, but campaigning has been dominated by the lifestyle of the prime minister and his wife.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the conduct of Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara is the most important issue facing Israel.
Between comic and sometimes bizarre videos on social networks, simplistic sloganeering, personal jibes and a total absence of serious debate, rarely has a campaign sunk so low, political scientists say.
President Reuven Rivlin agrees.
"When the slogan is the be all and end all, we are left with a problem," he said of electioneering for the March 17 vote.
The incoming government will have to deal with a raft of serious issues.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, international aid agencies and diplomats are all warning of another outbreak of fighting with Israel unless conditions in the poverty-stricken territory improve.
While prospects for peace with the Palestinians remote, in the north the Syria conflict is also exerting new pressures.
With just eight million citizens, Israel looks on with deep disquiet at the spread of jihadist groups in the region and sees the influence of arch-foe Iran everywhere.
Domestically, Israel enjoyed enviable economic growth of more than 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, despite the costly July-August Gaza war and unemployment running at 5.7 percent in December.But such numbers also hide a large income divide.
Israeli expatriates in Germany sparked controversy last autumn when they published on Facebook grocery receipts showing prices far lower than at Israel`s cheapest discount chain -- and urged compatriots back home to join them in Berlin.
As campaigning grumbles into its final weeks, voters have heard more about the Netanyahus` recycling habits, dizzying domestic cleaning bills and penchant for pistachio ice cream paid for by the public.
Media reported in January that Sara pocketed at least $1,000 (885 euros) worth of public cash by collecting the deposits on empty bottles returned from their official residence.
Her husband denied the allegations.
A report by the government watchdog this week said Sara Netanyahu had called in an electrician for their private seaside home in Caesarea every weekend for three months, including on a public holiday when staff were off and unable to assess whether work was urgently needed.
Despite the possibility of police probing such allegations they may not harm Netanyahu politically, says Emmanuel Navon, professor of international relations at Tel Aviv University.
"It will only play in his favour," he said. "Rightwing and undecided voters perceive this as a vendetta by the left."
Netanyahu is also having fun with the social networks.
In one video he parodies attacks on him when he is seen in the middle of a strategic telephone call and an aide bursts in with news of the latest scandal.
"There are snails in the garden!" he gasps. Another shows him confronting a crowd of unruly pre-school children, one of whom represents political rival Tzipi Livni while the boys bear the names of other challengers.
In another, playing on his nickname Bibi, he is the only person, in a sketch called "The Bibisitter", to whom a young couple is prepared to entrust their children.
Polls show Netanyahu`s Likud party and the opposition coalition headed by Livni and Labour leader Isaac Hertzog running about neck-and-neck.
But Israel`s system of proportional representation means it is not about the single leading party but the one most able to build a governing coalition.
Hertzog was reportedly also urged to use humour in his campaign, "but the truth is that the situation in Israel is not funny," he has said.
"A third of children living below the poverty line is not funny. Young couples living with their parents because they can`t afford to buy an apartment is not funny either."
Political science professor Denis Charbit, of Israel`s Open University, says Netanyahu is happy to come out fighting while others avoid direct conflict for fear of alienating voters.
When he faces off against the White House over the Iran nuclear issue, for example, "Netanyahu is defining the daily agenda".
"Even the report on his lifestyle is a way to avoid the social issues," Charbit said.