Israeli candidates slug it out through Web ads

In Israel, the major parties in March election battle via viral video

The young Israeli couple are waiting nervously for the babysitter before an evening out. Hearing a knock at the door, they open it to a most surprising sight: Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is standing with a sly grin on their threshold.

"You ordered a babysitter?" he says. "You got a Bibi-sitter."

The pun, which works in both English and Hebrew, has become one of the signature moments of Israel's election campaign, which has been heavily conducted through slick online videos that sometimes come closer to TV sitcom fare than to traditional campaign ads. In a country that celebrates both irreverence and in-your-face politics, both have been on flamboyant display in the course of a campaign in which Netanyahu is fighting, rather gleefully, for his political future.

The last time a debate was held between candidates for Israel's top political spot was in 1999. Repeatedly challenged by his main rival, Isaac Herzog, to a debate, Netanyahu has said he will consider it when he returns from his controversial speech before Congress.

Meanwhile, heading into the final weeks before the March 17 elections, all the major parties slug it out by way of viral video.

"The main platform for these videos is Facebook," said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a new media expert with the Israel Democracy Institute. "This is where the electorate's at.... This is a transitional phase in political campaigning, and it's all trial and error."

The campaign has paid homage to multiple genres, from comedy to horror. The clips swiftly spawn comebacks, sequels, spoofs and mash-ups.

New videos are uploaded Saturday nights, carefully timed for Israel's emergence from the Sabbath hiatus and designed to set the buzz for the new week.

Media-savvy Economy Minister Naftali Bennett kicked off his Jewish Home party's campaign with a sequence of clips, featuring a well-meaning, generously bearded, hopelessly clumsy hipster who apologizes constantly to passersby for a series of real and imagined gaffes. The message: Israel should stop kowtowing to the international community.

"Bennett is king of this domain," Altshuler said, "followed by … Netanyahu. Both claim that mainstream media is against them, and use social media to bypass the mainstream."

Few videos have gotten more attention than the "Bibi-sitter" video, which is slightly reminiscent of Sen. John McCain's appearances in "Saturday Night Live" skits during his 2008 presidential campaign, albeit with a more serious political point. In it, Netanyahu reassures the surprised parents and plugs his security agenda. The message: He's the guy who can be trusted to watch out for Israel's children.

When the couple return from their big date, Netanyahu is curled up on the couch under a blanket, munching popcorn and laughing at himself on television. In an unusual twist, the video includes English subtitles, suggesting that Netanyahu is interested in softening his image in the United States as well as in Israel.

A series of response videos from Herzog's Zionist Union campaign showed the scene of Netanyahu sitting with his popcorn, laughing. But the images Netanyahu sees on the TV screen are quite different. In one, rockets are shown landing in Israel during the recent Gaza Strip war; in another, the public health system is collapsing.

"While Bibi's been starring in a comedy, our lives are a tragedy," the narrator says. Addressing Netanyahu, the video adds, "Your movie ends on March 17th."

Another Netanyahu video relies on animation to make its point. It depicts caricatures of Herzog and Tzipi Livni, another leader of the Zionist Union, panicking over which one should answer a ringing red phone. On the other end: President Obama.

"At the moment of truth — only Netanyahu," the ad concludes.

Zionist Union shot back with its own video. "The question isn't who will answer, but who will even call you," it said, zinging Netanyahu for Israel's souring international relations.

There is, inevitably, a video based on "Fifty Shades of Grey." In the Zionist Union's version, it's "50 Shades of Black," an accounting of what it posits are the grim realities of life under Netanyahu: the rising cost of living, entrenched poverty and rockets fired from Gaza. The video urges viewers to stay tuned for "50 Shades of Hope," the party's plan for a better future.

But what may be the strangest ad , produced by Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party, features a cameo by the Sunni extremists of Islamic State (as played by actors).

Militants in a truck are seen rolling through the desert, waving their trademark black flags. Their pickup sports an "Anyone but Bibi" bumper sticker, playing on a motto popular among Israeli left-wingers.

They pull up next to an Israeli driver, and, sounding quite friendly, ask directions to Jerusalem.

"Go left," he answers.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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