RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Israel this week, the election campaign for a new parliament kicks into high gear. Last night the first television ads aired. Networks are required to leave long stretches of space for the ads. With the vote just two weeks off, opposition parties are hoping their TV spots will at last weaken the frontrunner, the prime minister's Likud Party.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports from Jerusalem.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Bunching a series of political ads into concentrated blocks is a tradition in Israeli politics. They run end to end for over an hour, and repeat at different times until the election. Big parties, like Likud, get more airtime because they have more seats in the Knesset or parliament. So viewers saw a lot of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, touting his accomplishments, such as the speech he made at the United Nations last year about Iran's nuclear threat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: A red line should be drawn right here.
ABRAMSON: The red line was drawn in a picture of a bomb, representing just how far Iran's nuclear enrichment program should be allowed to go before military action might be needed to stop it. In the ads, Netanyahu says little about his government's stalemate in negotiating with the Palestinians.
One of his nearest rivals, Tzipi Livni, takes aim at what she says is Netanyahu's failure to make progress in Israeli's oldest conflict.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
TZIPI LIVNI: (Foreign language spoken)
ABRAMSON: We believe, Livni says in tape from one of her past speeches, that the only way to keep Israel Jewish and democratic is to make every effort to reach an agreement in the Palestinian conflict.
Polls show that Livni and other centrist or left-wing parties don't have the votes to unseat Netanyahu. But they are hoping to erode his support, so he'll have to make concessions once a government is formed.
One man who apparently won votes from Netanyahu's supporters is using his status as a political maverick to mock traditional party ads. Naftali Bennett, son of American immigrants, starts his pitch with sweet music and doves flying. Then two young people come on to say we're not going to lull you with the usual nonsense.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
ABRAMSON: Bennett has gained support for his Jewish Home Party by artfully packaging a controversial message: Israel should not negotiate over the West Bank and should simply annex part of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
NAFTALI BENNETT: I hope that one day the Palestinians will get some sense and will stop shooting missiles at my own children. But until that time comes, we're going to be here to protect ourselves.
ABRAMSON: Naftali Bennett has been firing lots of verbal missiles at the prime minister, saying Netanyahu is open to a coalition government with the left. Some analysts here say that rhetoric has actually pushed Netanyahu's ruling coalition further to the right.
National security is important in any election here. But most of Tuesday's ads actually focused more on the social issues that led to mass demonstrations in 2011 protesting the high cost of living. The Labour Party ad showed tape of those gatherings...
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
ABRAMSON: ...saying that the call for social justice that started in the street must continue at the ballot box.
Sprinkled throughout are appeals from single interest parties that don't have a prayer of getting into the Knesset, calling simply for a cleaner environment or legalizing marijuana. They are part of the political circus here that has many acts. But the center ring is occupied by Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems certain to win his third term as prime minister. The question is whether the war of messages will push him to the right or to the left.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.