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Ari On The Road: Bumper Sticker Politics

by Ari Sharp

Today Ari reports from an Internet Cafe just off Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem, two blocks away from where Malki Roth, an Australian, was killed in a terrorist attack at a pizzeria in mid-2002.

Ari SharpIn Israel, life is politics, and politics is life. It is incredible that in a country of just on 6 million people, over 600,000 are members of a political party. Of those, 300,000 are members of the governing Likud party. Mathematically therefore, 1 in 20 people are members of the ruling political party. Contrast this with a more relaxed democracy such as Australia, where political party membership is well short of 1% of the population.

One of the consequences of this higher level of civic participation is that people wear their political colours with pride. Many Israelis proudly sport political bumper stickers on the back of their car, and political propaganda of one flavour or another is draped out the window of just about any prominent public place.

The substance of these slogans says a lot about the political culture. Political scientists often talk about two different effects which can operate in an election period. Termed the “Underdog effect” and the “Bandwagon effect”, they refer to where political parties should position themselves in the public imagination to maximise their vote. When the former is prevalent, political parties will try valiantly to position themselves as the underdogs, needing every vote possible, regardless of the political reality. The latter, however, sees success breed success, and encourages voters to go with a successful candidate or party, again regardless of the political reality.

In this campaign, the bandwagon effect is most definitely in operation. The Likud party has opted for the slogan “Am Rotsa Sharon”, translated as “The people want Sharon”. This rather brazen, definitive statement appears on the side of many of the public buses in Israel, as well as billboards and the aforementioned bumper stickers. Whether the statement is true, however, in increasingly questionable.

Sharon and Likud have seen their support plummet up to 25% in recent times, in the face of two significant scandals. The first, relating to irregularities in the Likud primary, was the major story of the campaign until it was replaced by another scandal – 1.5 Million New Israeli Sheckel which was donated by a South African businessman to Sharon’s son, also a candidate for Likud in this election. Numerous attempts to halt the decline in support have so far been unsuccessful.

The slogan chosen by Labour and its leader, Amram Mitzna, is “Ruk Mitzna Yichol”, translated as “Only Mitzna Can”. This refers to the ability Mitzna believes he has to negotiate peace with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, given that Sharon has declared he will refuse to talk until acts of terror stop. Mitzna has taken a significant political risk in this campaign by pledging to withdraw (unilaterally, if necessary) from the West Bank if he is the next Prime Minister. The significant caveat that Mitzna attached to this statement was that if the acts of terror continue, then he will be merciless on those who perpetrate it.

There is also a plethora of minor parties who hold their own in the bumper sticker and poster stakes, even if their political power (both now and most likely after the election) is minimal.

The turf on the left is wide open, with the main rivalry between Labour, and Meretz. Running on the slogan “Yesh Lanu Meretz La’ashot” – “We have the energy to do” – Meretz is a leftist party. Its biggest selling point is its absence from the coalition National Unity government which saw Labor largely supportive of the Sharon government. This point is best illustrated in the TV commercial screened by Meretz, which sees a cartoonish Ariel Sharon as a shepherd and the various members of his previous National Unity government as sheep. Only in Israel would bible stories be fit for political advertisements.

The light relief of the campaign comes in the form of Oleh Yarock, the Green Leaf party, who feel that the vital issue of this campaign is the legalisation of marijuana and prostitution. Unsurprisingly, this issue has failed to capture the public’s imagination.

On the right of the political spectrum is an unseemly bidding war between a range of minor parties each keen to show they are more to the right than the other parties.

Despite having just a single MK, Herut have a stong presence on the ground emphasising their right wing credentials.

Other parties such as Shas (presently the third largest party in the Knesset), National Religious Party, National Union, Ahavot Yisrael and Mafdal all try to outdo each other. One recurring theme is their opposition to a Palestinian state, and the portrayal of Ariel Sharon as soft on terror and drifting to the centre. While each of these parties are unlikely to do especially well, they may well be vital to Sharon piecing together a coalition after the election, given that an outright majority will be impossible.

Despite there being less than three weeks until election day, it is Likud scandals rather than talk of war and peace that dominates the political discussion. So far it has been the Labour Party which has set the agenda for the election, and Sharon has constantly been on the defensive. His ability to put the scandal behind him, and shift the focus to Labor’s weakness of lack of credibility on national security, will be central to his ability to remain in government.

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