Israel's election campaign takes the scourge of paka-paka to a new level

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, Jan. 24, 2003

JERUSALEM - Paka-paka. The lips never stop moving. Paka-paka. The hot air flows from the mouth. Paka-paka. Opinions spew out for whoever will listen. Paka-paka.

In Israel's media bombarded, overly politicized, highly opinionated, emotionally charged, ideologically divided society, paka-paka is part of life. No more so than during an election campaign.

Packa-packa is the popular term Israelis use to denote the mix of self-important bombast, long-winded commentary and general yada-yada-yada heard so often throughout the nation. In a country where talking heads rule the air waves, per capita cell phone use is among the highest in the world, and where almost every citizen feels he knows better than the prime minister, paka-paka is inevitable.

Lately, in the lead-up to next Tuesday's election, the P factor has gone into overdrive, and I don't mean just paka-paka. Pundits, pollsters, political publicists, the press and of course the politicians themselves -- pontificating paka-paka professionals all -- have taken center stage.

Since the election campaign began in November, first for party primaries and then for the Knesset itself, politics has had a stranglehold on the public agenda and dominated the media. Never at a loss for words, columnists, political talk show hosts, panelists and countless other supposed experts, debate endlessly: Why Prime Ariel Sharon is still so popular despite the sorry state of the nation and failing to deliver on his campaign promises of two years ago? Why has the campaign of Labor leader Amram Mitzna and his party's failed to take off? How will Israel's one million-plus Russian immigrants vote this time? Why is the centrist, secular rights party, Shinui, proving so popular despite its ill-deinfed platform? The topics go on ad infinitum.

The Likud corruption scandal injected an exciting new element to the media's already obsessive coverage of political intrigues, imbroglios, shenanigans and other forms of jockeying for power. Adding to the torrent of paka-paka, every other day sees a new poll published with great fanfare.

This year, in deference to the country's depressed mood, the economic crisis and the fact that almost nobody wanted this election in the first place, the Knesset tried to act responsibly. It reduced, albeit reluctantly, the hefty subsidy it gives the parties from the public purse to help pay for their campaigns. This slightly lower subsidy did not stop the parties from producing millions of freshly minted posters, banners, billboards, bumper stickers, flyers, brochures, handbills, newspaper ads and other printed matter that compete for the public's attention. All this in addition to the parties' official TV and radio propaganda blitz.

Some things just never change, such as the inane slogans, overworked cliches, and the airbrushed images of earnest-looking faces posing against the ubiquitous blue and white flag. It's so tired and predictable. So too are the obligatory buzzwords like "peace" and "security", repeated so often as to render them meaningless.

Such is democracy in action, Israeli style. And we all know what the result will be: Another slate of 120 Knesset members, long on ego and self-interest, but short on integrity, responsibility and answering to the people; Another bloated, dysfunctional governing coalition to further alienate the public; Another reminder that Israel is virtually ungovernable, and will remain so until there is major electoral reform.

The current system is a crying shame, and almost everybody knows it. Hard not to. For years, in response to calls from the public, politicians have paid lip service to the need for electoral reform. Surprise, surprise, they never quite get around to legislating it for fear of risking their Knesset seats.

So far this campaign, electoral reform has barely rated a mention from the candidates. Only one party, Yisrael B'Aliyah, actively addressed the issue in its platform and in recently proposed legislation.

Specifically, it calls for two main changes to make the Knesset more representative and accountable to the public. The first entails creating legislative districts for the direct election of Knesset members who would represent a specific region, like in most western democracies. Lawmakers would then report to their constituencies as opposed to the powers of their party.

The second proposal would raise the threshold (from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of total votes) by which a party needs to enter the Knesset. This would prevent small, splinter parties from wielding inordinate power over coalition agreements and Knesset decisions as they do now.

All pretty sensible stuff long overdue but, sadly, still likely a long way off. What will it take for such change to ever happen? A lot more than just paka-paka.

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