Laugh Till You Cry

During his reelection campaign this winter, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned the word “Iran” on his Facebook page 155 times. This was three times as often as the next politician on the list, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s younger, right-wing rival. Iran was, in many ways, central to Netanyahu’s campaign. Not only did it form a constant refrain in his campaign rhetoric, it was the focal point of Netanyahu’s epic speech to the United States Congress in early March, a speech intended to help halt his declining poll numbers and draw public attention away from Israel’s internal problems.

The Israeli Right's New Sense of Humor

Image by Government Press Office via Flickr

During his reelection campaign this winter, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, mentioned the word “Iran” on his Facebook page 155 times. This was three times as often as the next politician on the list, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s younger, right-wing rival. Iran was, in many ways, central to Netanyahu’s campaign. Not only did it form a constant refrain in his campaign rhetoric, it was the focal point of Netanyahu’s epic speech to the United States Congress in early March, a speech intended to help halt his declining poll numbers and draw public attention away from Israel’s internal problems.

On March 5, two days after Netanyahu’s speech, his party aired a campaign ad to celebrate the Purim holiday. The video depicted a support-group meeting of various people who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s government: lazy union representatives, public servants who had been forced to work harder, the CEO of a mobile phone company who had been forced to stop exploiting the public, and one whiny Hebrew-speaking Hamas militant. At the end of the video, Netanyahu walks into the room and asks the viewers to vote for him. The day after the ad was shown on television, port workers—many of whom are traditional Likud voters, and therefore Netanyahu voters—made it clear that they were offended by the fact that their Prime Minister had compared them, working citizens, to Hamas militants. Netanyahu was forced to apologize to the head of Israel’s Ports Authority Workers’ Union. The video was removed, but the speech’s impact was overshadowed by the ensuing scandal, which focused attention on domestic issues. Netanyahu, who only a few days earlier had said, in response to criticism about the high cost of living, that the most important thing was dealing with “life itself,” which is to say the Iranian threat, didn’t mention Iran again until Election Day.

This video may have been the most visible instance of cheap humor in Israel’s recent elections, but it was far from the only one. Netanyahu, who refused to make his party’s platform public or to participate in any electoral debates because he was “too busy,” did find time to appear on the popular satirical program Matzav Ha’Uma, star in a campaign video as a babysitter, and send his leading ministers to appear in another video dressed up as soccer players being interviewed after a triumphant match. Netanyahu also made a guest appearance in a strange video starring a lifestyle-and-design TV host and including a tour of his official residence given by his wife, Sarah. As the music from House of Cards played in the background, the First Lady presented the house’s worn-out rugs, its rusty doors, and wilting flowers left out, she claimed, since a state visit from the Prime Minister of Japan. The video was released a day before the publication of the results of an investigation by the State Comptroller that criticized the extravagant expenditures of the Prime Minister’s state-funded household. (One expense the report singled out was the $4,200 a month Netanyahu spent on sushi.) Although widely ridiculed, the video managed to draw attention away from the Comptroller’s report and its charges.

Nor was Netanyahu the only right-wing candidate in these elections whose campaign relied on the strategic deployment of humor as means of escaping serious political and economic discussion. Only one major right-wing party, Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is Our Home”), avoided satirical campaign ads. (Its signature campaign ad depicted its chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanding the death penalty for all terrorists, followed by what I believe to be a peal of thunder.) Lieberman’s party was perhaps the biggest loser in the elections, losing seven of its thirteen Knesset seats and its status as Netanyahu’s main partner.

The Israeli right’s humor campaign has come, strangely enough, after an unnecessary summer war that resulted in many casualties, a war that was almost overlooked in this campaign. The word “war” was written only thirty-eight times on the Facebook page of the politician who used it most—Naftali Bennett, the former Minister of Economy and leader of the settlers’ party HaBayit HaYehudi. During the war, Bennett had suggested occupying the entire Gaza Strip, and the tenor of his Facebook comments was decidedly hawkish. More than any other candidate, he was responsible for the amused tone adopted by the right over the course of the elections. Bennett, who, at 43, was the youngest of the party chairs, kicked off his campaign on December 12 with a so-called “hipster video.” In the video, the clean-shaven Bennett disguised himself with an extremely long orange beard and confronted passersby in Tel Aviv with his version of a candid-camera routine, mumbling, “I’m so sorry . . . I’m so sorry” in a mocking attack on the Israeli left’s tendency to apologize for the occupation. The ad got over three hundred thousand views and provoked many responses, among them a counter-ad by the left-wing party Meretz, in which the party’s chairperson, Zehava Gal-On, disguised herself as a settler. In this video, right before Gal-On begins heckling passersby, the footage breaks off and Gal-On turns to the camera. She would never mock Israeli citizens, she says, even if they are right-wing. Her video was markedly less successful than Bennett’s.

What’s interesting in Bennett’s style as a prankster is that none of his civilian victims were allowed to say a word. This stands in contrast to the reigning tradition of Israeli candid-camera videos, an extremely popular genre in the ’80s and ’90s. In these earlier films, the pranks were designed for the amusement of their target and usually followed by a long comic conversation. In Bennett’s video, the silent civilians are ridiculed for being weak and unsuited to the reality of modern Israel for performing such actions as sitting in coffee shops.

After his first success, Bennett filmed a mockumentary with a famous comedian and followed the original hipster video up with a sequel, in which he impersonated Bougie Herzog, the head of the rival Labor party. In the first election polls, in November, Bennett got almost 20 percent, and for a moment it seemed as if he might overtake Netanyahu. At the end of January, perhaps in response to Bennett’s success, Netanyahu, previously known for his traditional, hysterical, and frightening campaigns focusing on urgent “existential threats” like Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah, appointed a well-known radio broadcaster who specialized in cheap impersonations as senior advisor to the Likud campaign.

Netanyahu, one could say, was forced to star in humor videos in order to compete with younger politicians and rid himself of the out-of-touch image he had acquired over the years. But in Bennett’s case, the amused, arrogant attitude displayed in the videos seemed like simply an expression of the patronizing new nationalist agenda that has trickled deep into Israel’s political center, and into the younger generation especially, since the latest war. As the videos show, Bennett and his voters are unwilling even to acknowledge that the occupation might be a problem. During his campaign, Bennett repeatedly explained that everything in Israel was fantastic: the tech sector was booming and investments were rolling in; all the Israelis had to do, in the words of his campaign slogan, was “stop apologizing.” The idea of a Palestinian state, he declared over and over again, was a thing of the past—a declaration Netanyahu, facing bad polling numbers, adopted in the final days before the election as a strategy to bring back home far-right voters. Netanyahu also found a new demonic rival to replace Iran: Arab-Israeli voters, whom he accused of “flooding the ballot boxes.”

It was hard not to notice the many appearances of extreme right-wing politicians on centrist, and even left-leaning, satirical TV programs in these elections. Those appearances whitewashed racist, nationalistic opinions that nobody would have dared to express in public during previous election campaigns. Right-wing extremists called for annexation and the transfer of Arab-Israeli citizens, attacked gay rights, and advocated the imprisonment of foreign workers, while the “sane” program hosts calmly rolled their eyes and complimented their guests on their playfulness.

In one especially striking example, Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Kach movement, appeared on a political reality show called The Settler, which is broadcast during prime time on the second-most important TV channel in Israel. The movement has been recognized as a terrorist organization in Israel and the US since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, a Kach supporter, murdered twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs. During the episode, Ben Gvir, who had himself previously been convicted on charges of supporting a terror organization and inciting racism, gave the show’s host a tour of his house in Hebron during which he stopped to praise a portrait of Goldstein hanging on the wall of his living room. The host, a right-wing comedian, started an amused argument about the portrait, at the end of which he agreed to give Ben Gvir a chance to show the other sides of his personality. Next, they went to a karaoke bar. Afterwards, the host purported to change his mind—despite his strange opinions, he said to the camera, this Ben Gvir was “after all, a funny guy.”

On the opposing side, Bougie Herzog, leader of the left-wing Labor party, was attacked over and over for possessing a “boring” voice unsuitable for a Prime Minister. There was some justice to this claim: even when he made his own appearance on a satirical TV show, a few weeks before the election, Herzog kept using his responses to make serious political points. Several days later, following Herzog’s campaign stop at a market in Tel Aviv, I asked the owner of a stand where the candidate had stopped to buy a single yam for his impressions of the potential Prime Minister. “Not funny,” the man said.

Netanyahu’s last-minute turn toward the extreme right won him the elections and thirty Knesset seats. His victory has, for the first time in decades, made it possible for him to form a wholly nationalist and neoliberal government with no centrist or leftist partners. Although Netanyahu backpedaled on his claim that the Palestinian state was a thing of the past after he won the election, his government may yet be the first since Oslo to publicly renounce the idea of a two-state solution.

For the Israeli Zionist left, these elections, and the remarkable convergence of the right around a mocking, aggressive, nationalistic discourse might prove to be a chance to finally separate itself from Netanyahu and find new and natural allies in the Arabic Joint Party, which, for the first time since Rabin’s 1992 government, has hinted it might cooperate with Zionist parties again. If both sides can overcome racist and nationalist suspicions, this could prove to be these elections’ most important consequence.

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