Israelis Find News That's Fit Is Only in Print

The world may be watching for the results of Israel's May 29 election, which pits Prime Minister Shimon Peres, architect of the 1993 peace deal with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, against right-wing challenger Binyamin Netanyahu.

But on Israeli TV and radio news stations, Israeli viewers haven't seen or heard from the candidates since last week - when a news blackout on broadcasting pictures or interviews of the candidates took effect for the remainder of the campaign.

The three-week blackout is just one example of the tight limits on political advertising that have characterized Israeli campaigns, says Gadi Wolfsfeld, an American-born media expert at Israel's Hebrew University.

The curbs have their roots in pre-television Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. The egalitarian ideal was to curb the clout of the politicians in power. Yet many Israelis now say that the laws are becoming obsolete as more households hook up to cable - and can see Mr. Peres on CNN or the BBC even if he is barred from Israel Television news.

Instead of broadcast coverage, Israeli viewers can watch 20 minutes daily of "election propaganda" - a bloc of free evening airtime available to all of the contending parties and allocated according to their electoral size.

"It's not all bad," says Mr. Wolfsfeld of the system. "In the [United] States, only rich people and rich parties can advertise on television. This system offers a forum for smaller parties to express their views. On the other hand, it leaves us with some rather strange news."

In an era when Israeli politicians are globetrotting to Washington, Europe, and the Arab world, the limits sometimes appear ludicrous. An Israel Television news report last week of a meeting between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak featured a closeup shot of Mr. Barak's shoes.

Perhaps unintentionally, the restrictions also have reduced the overall impact of TV compared with print news on the campaign.

Since the political ads are shown in one nightly bloc, Israelis are increasingly opting to turn them off, explains Menachem Hofnung, a campaign expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"Because most people can turn the channel now - the impact is insignificant," he says.

In comparison to the canned and sterile TV coverage, Israel's five major daily newspapers provide a livelier forum for debate - analyzing every word uttered by the candidates from foreign policy statements to back room political gossip and strategy.

Political analysts of all sorts have replaced politicians on the nightly news. One late night news broadcast last week featured a musicologist discussing the influence of classical music on campaign jingles. Media experts constantly analyze the pictorial value of advertising clips.

"Every one is saying the same things" in the campaign, complained Gabi Weiman, a media expert at Haifa University. "You can hardly tell if the blue flags belong to Likud or to Labour. There are a lot of youths, a lot of songs and guitars - it reminds me of MTV."

Although smooth, packaged advertising may be the bread and butter of American politics, Israeli voters like their politicians to look more serious, Mr. Weiman argues. "Most of the American public isn't interested or involved in politics, and you have to get them interested," he said. "But Israelis are very politically involved and aware ... and this [television advertising] is trivial and banal."

IN part, the increasingly dull TV campaign may be symptomatic of Israel's new system of direct elections for the prime minister. The system, like America's, was supposed to bolster the power of the political center. And indeed, both Labour leader Peres and Likud Party leader Netanyahu have tried to position themselves in the middle.

Thus Netanyahu, whom critics worry could destroy the peace process, has featured a dove prominently in his TV ads, a symbol usually associated with the Israeli left. And Peres, under attack for being to conciliatory toward Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, is shown surrounded by fawning teenagers wearing patriotic blue and white T-shirts - the colors of the Israeli flag.

Tougher party registration rules, meanwhile, have curbed the powers of the small and off-beat interest groups like the taxi drivers' party, On Wheels, and the Natural Law Party of transcendental meditators - which in the past peppered the television campaign with color.

Although a hefty 21 parties are still in the race, they are largely hard-core ideological factions ranging from the Communist Party to an ultranationalistic Jewish party, Right of Israel.

Wolfsfeld says that media laws are due for an overhaul by the time general elections roll around again in 2000 - and most of the bans limiting news coverage will be lifted by then. But lawmakers will be more reluctant to permit paid TV ads - just as they will be reluctant to abandon state subsidies that finance much of the Israeli election, he says.

"The major advantage of this system," Wolfsfeld says, "is that parties are less dependent on private contributors. And that means that after the elections, private contributors have less influence in determining policy."

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