After Knesset election-rama, Israeli political advisers turn to Tirana

No fewer than 8 Israeli campaign strategists were involved in Albania’s recent vote, including Netanyahu’s once-unreticent spokesman Jonatan Urich, who may be seeking new pastures

Supporters of the Socialist Party wave flags during a rally of their party in Tirana, Albania, April 22, 2021. (AP)
Supporters of the Socialist Party wave flags during a rally of their party in Tirana, Albania, April 22, 2021. (AP)

For nearly a year, one of the most outspoken defenders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained near-total radio silence.

On May 24, 2020, Jonatan Urich, a Likud spokesman, close adviser to the premier and chum of Netanyahu’s bluntly outspoken son Yair, fired off four tweets in support of the prime minister, who was making history that day as the first sitting head of the government in the country’s history to go on trial.

Then he stopped tweeting, his Instagram account went dark and he stopped responding to journalists’ questions.

Before that date, Urich was nearly a household name for a certain type of news consumer. After Israel’s third round of elections, he famously declared on TV that Netanyahu had managed the largest win in Israel’s history. (Likud won an impressive 36 seats, but it wasn’t enough to form a government without Blue and White, which had won 33 spots.)

Likud spokesman Jonatan Urich at a joint press conference given by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

His sarcastic slings and arrows aimed at Likud’s detractors were a mainstay of political reportage (often unattributed) and his Twitter feed was a showcase of caustic attacks on anyone who dared impugn the party and its leader.

So where did Urich go?

Albania, as it turns out. And he wasn’t alone.

Rendezvous with Rama or for the Lulzim?

On April 25, incumbent Albanian prime minister Edi Rama of the Socialist Party won reelection against Lulzim Basha, the head of the country’s conservative Democratic Party and a former mayor of the capital Tirana.

Basha, a former lawyer who investigated war crimes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, has faced off against Rama, a former painter, in several local and national elections over the years.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, during an interview in Tirana, Albania, on April 20, 2021. (AP/Hektor Pustina)

The Socialists won enough votes last month to take 74 of the Albanian parliament’s 140 seats, snagging a majority on its own. The Democratic Party won 59 seats, which means it will continue to lead the opposition along with a handful of smaller parties.

Behind the scenes of both candidates were contingents of Israeli political operatives who imported Israel-style campaigns into Albania, including strategies for driving voter engagement, using social media and targeting audiences — all without knowing more than a smidgen of the local tongue.

For the better part of the last decade, Israeli pollsters and strategists have become a mainstay during elections in Albania and other Eastern European countries, including Serbia, Ukraine, Kosovo, and Romania — not unlike the US political consultants who regularly place their imprints on Israeli elections.

Urich himself was on the losing side, advising Basha alongside Asaf Shariv, a former communications adviser to late prime minister Ariel Sharon and former Israel consul in New York; Israel Einhorn, an advertising executive and adviser to Netanyahu; and Adi Timor, a communications consultant with expertise in international campaigns, including in Africa.

Leader of the Democratic Party Lulzim Basha, delivers a speech at the closing political rally in the capital Tirana, Albania on Friday, April 23, 2021. (AP/Visar Kryeziu)

While Urich claimed Netanyahu had won an unprecedented victory, Rama actually did make history, becoming the first three-time prime minister in the country’s history.

Aiding Rama’s campaign was Tal Silberstein, who served as Gideon Sa’ar’s strategic adviser in the March 2021 campaign and has been a mainstay of other campaigns in Europe. Also in his corner were Assaf Eisen, who has worked for many years in Albania and many other countries; Ido Stossel, who advised Labor in March; and Shuki Shapiro, who was spokesman for former Meretz MK Ilan Gilon.

Tal Silberstein, seen at Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, on August 14, 2017. (Flash90)

In Tirana and elsewhere in Europe, Israelis are seen as masters of social media political campaigns, with specialized know-how for using tech to drive votes, organize databases and coordinate messaging. (The fact that Israeli advisers have been getting plenty of practice at home with four nearly consecutive elections does not hurt.)

All around Europe, Israelis carry an aura of being wizzes at digital campaigning, and the proximity of Tel Aviv to Europe (Tirana is three hours away by plane) has also helped boost business for Israeli strategists.

Fewer than 3 million people live in Albania, but the country allows absentee voting for those abroad and eligible voter rolls top 3.6 million. To reach those outside the country, outreach over social media is especially crucial, and where many of the Israeli advisers were expected to earn their keep.

An Albanian man casts his vote during parliamentary elections in the capital Tirana, Albania, Sunday, April 25, 2021. (AP/Visar Kryeziu)

But despite the number of Israelis involved in the Albanian election, social media remained a fairly small part of the parties’ strategies. According to local news site JOQ Albania, Rama spent a paltry $88,000 on Facebook advertising, which still outstripped Basha’s $36,000 spent on direct campaigning via the platform, both a fraction of what parties spend in Israel.

The proliferation of Israeli advisers in European elections means that sometimes strategists who work against each other in one country will work together in another. In Israel, for instance, both Timor and Zilberstein worked for Sa’ar, but in Albania they were on opposite sides of the ballot box.

Late to the party

Urich was a fairly late addition to Basha’s campaign, The Times of Israel has learned, joining mainly via his personal connections to Einhorn. He only flew to Tirana as the campaign drew to a close in April, following Israel’s own election in late March.

His role with Likud is less than crystal at the moment. While a party spokesperson insists that Urich “is spokesman and adviser to the prime minister,” his jaunt to Albania may be a sign that he is looking to move on.

In December 2020, Times of Israel sister site Zman Yisrael reported that Urich was spotted meeting with businesspeople in Dubai at the office of Amit Hadad, Netanyahu’s defense lawyer, another sign he may be looking to expand beyond dank tweets and pwning the leftists on Twitter.

Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich poses for a picture outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to assessments by people familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity, Urich’s decision to lower his profile online was mainly due to a criminal investigation into suspicions he harassed state’s witness Shlomo Filber, a key figure in the most serious criminal case against Netanyahu.

Urich declined to respond to The Times of Israel for this article and has in fact stopped responding to journalists’ queries at all. Questions to the party were answered by another spokesperson.

In the meantime, though, he appears to still be a close adviser to Netanyahu.

Nir Hefetz, a former Netanyahu adviser who has also agreed to testify against the premier, recently tweeted a picture of Urich with other Netanyahu advisers heading to a press conference.

And a week before the Israeli election, Israel Hayom published audio in which Urich talks to Netanyahu about luring defectors from other parties to Likud to secure a majority coalition.

On Tuesday night, Netanyahu gave up his bid to form a government after failing to lure anyone to his side. Perhaps the strategy will play better in Albania.

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