Israeli election hopefuls seek the Obama touch
JERUSALEM — The star of Israel’s election campaign seems to be Barack Obama.
A religious party has translated “yes we can” into Hebrew. Front-runner Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Web page looks a lot like Obama’s, and a candidate for Parliament has his own version of an “Obama-girl” Internet ad.
As for Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, vying with Netanyahu for the premiership in the Feb. 10 election, his surname prompts party colleague Amir Peretz to joke that he’s “halfway there.”
Whether they like or dislike Obama’s politics hardly seems to matter. Nor can they claim to be fresh faces. Barak and Netanyahu are both former prime ministers with mixed records, while Tzipi Livni, the third candidate for the job, is foreign minister in the outgoing government.
“What’s sad and tragic is that there really is no one who is a real Obama, who can say, here is something new, here is something different,” said Oriella Ben-Zvi, an Israeli political consultant who worked for the Clinton administration.
She said it was part of a larger trend of Israel playing catch-up with America. “Bibi is a rerun, Barak is a rerun. It is depressingly not about change, it is about going back,” she said. “What we are probably going to get is our own George W. Bush.”
That may not be such a negative; Bush is remembered here as the most supportive president Israel ever had.
Initially many Israelis were wary of Obama over his stated willingness to speak with Israel’s archenemy, Iran, and over the opinions of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, whose church he later quit. They particularly recoiled over Wright’s support for Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic remarks.
Israeli public opinion heavily favored Republican John McCain for president. But since the election, Obama-mania has swept across the Jewish state, and even Shas, a party of black-coated ultra-Orthodox Jews, has jumped aboard.
Its spiritual leader is Ovadia Yosef, an 88-year-old rabbi who has compared women to donkeys and has called Hurricane Katrina divine punishment. “Ken, anakhnu yekholim” may sound less snappy than “yes we can,” but that hasn’t prevented Shas from putting it on billboards and buses _ always dutifully preceded by “God Willing.”
Shas spokesman Roy Lachmanovitch said the slogan was fitting because the party also preached change and a revolution for the underclass. “We are the Israeli Obama because we are fighting for those the establishment has ignored,” he said.
Netanyahu also seems an unlikely Obama admirer. His hawkish politics are far more in sync with those of McCain, but he insists he has developed a rapport with the president-elect and can work with him.
Netanyahu spokesman Ron Dermer acknowledged that the campaign’s Web site _ which features nearly identical colors, fonts and features _ was inspired by Obama’s. “We wanted to learn from the best,” he said.
Livni and Barak haven’t gone that far, but the foreign minister’s solemn face features in “Livni Boy,” an Internet clip of a hip young man singing her praises.
Supporters of Sagiv Assulin, a parliamentary candidate for Netanyahu’s Likud party, went a step further, producing a clip virtually identical to the cult Internet video “I’ve got a crush on Obama.”
“Assulin girl,” in which a T-shirted woman sings “I’m crazy about Assulin,” became an instant Youtube hit, and the 30-year-old unknown has since been elected No. 33 on Likud’s slate of candidates, giving him a good shot at getting into Parliament.
Assulin, who considers himself ultranationalist, says he’s the ideological opposite of Obama but respects his message.
“Obama is a role model in what he represents,” he said, “a new, young, different leader.”