Herzliya: When Israelis gather around the water cooler to discuss their March 17 election, odds are the conversation will turn to a television satire that has caught even US President Barack Obama`s notice in the past.
Eretz Nehederet ("Wonderful Country"), which airs weekly on Israel`s biggest private station Channel 2, spares no candidate. Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes off as a conniving buffoon and his main challenger, Labour party chief Isaac Herzog, as a needy nerd.
Now in its 12th season, the Monday night show boasts a 30 percent audience share in Israel.
Recognising the programme`s popularity, Obama joked in a speech during his 2013 visit to Israel that "any drama between me and my friend Bibi (Netanyahu) over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet".
But the show`s makers are modest about any sway over voters.
"We do our own thing, and whatever happens in the minds of our viewers is their own business and responsibility," executive producer Muli Segev told Reuters.
Freewheeling political satire, Segev said during a taping at a studio near Tel Aviv, "is almost a sacred institute in a culture like Israel, and it is almost a Jewish tradition".
The show features sketches, faux news-panel discussions and pre-edited spots filmed on location. Netanyahu appeared on the programme two years ago to poke fun at himself.
Even Israel`s foes might be watching. In 2008, then Defence Minister Ehud Barak made a surprise cameo shortly before a shock offensive in Gaza -- a display of normalcy apparently meant to lower Hamas guerrillas` guard.
In its newest episode, Eretz Nehederet imagined Netanyahu smugly winning a game show dubbed "Zionist or Terrorist" in which Herzog and centre-left ally Tzipi Livni repeatedly and haplessly fail rigged questions gauging their patriotism.
It also took aim at Naftali Bennett, a former tech entrepreneur whose religious-nationalist Jewish Home party is expected to do well in the election.
The actor playing Bennett got laughs from the studio audience by needling cast members into saying "Amen" to his self-serving political prayers, while posing for selfies.
Anat First, mass-media professor at Netanya Academic College, said around one in eight Israelis tuned in for the launch last week of Eretz Nehederet`s new season.
The show, she said, is "the biggest `campfire` we have".
Even Bennett`s American-born parents, who used to watch the long-running "Saturday Night Live" satire on US television, enjoyed the barbs aimed by the Israeli equivalent at their son.
"But the actor was thinner" than Naftali, Bennett`s mother, Myrna, told a news agency.