Inside story

Born on the 4th: Israeli parties look to US playbook for pandemic-era campaigns

With Likud sticking to its Republican pollster, New Hope signs up with group that helped defeat Trump from the right, while Yesh Atid sees Georgia as a model for beating Netanyahu

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

A supporter of US President Donald Trump wears a hat in the colors of the American flag at a rally for his re-election, at a promenade overlooking Jerusalem, October 27, 2020. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
A supporter of US President Donald Trump wears a hat in the colors of the American flag at a rally for his re-election, at a promenade overlooking Jerusalem, October 27, 2020. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Forget about kissing babies. Forget trips through open-air markets thronged with shoppers and supporters. Forget mass rallies at Rabin Square, and parlor meetings to win over undecideds by the dozen.

Israel’s election campaign in March 2020 was conducted with COVID-19 banging on the doors, but without any restrictions on gatherings or social distancing. Now the country is heading back to the polls for a fourth vote in two years, and with health restrictions expected to continue at least until the March 23 elections, politicians are gearing up for a campaign that will look like none before, with rallies and most other events banned.

For tips on how to do this well, several parties are looking to a country that just managed its own massively significant election despite the raging coronavirus: the United States.

Israeli politicians have long looked to American pollsters and campaign advisers for help locally. In 1996, GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win his first term as premier; in 2015, Democratic strategist Jeremy Bird advised the local V15 group attempting to oust Netanyahu from power.

Even though America’s electorate and electoral system differ wildly from Israel’s, having an American political strategist has become almost de rigueur for parties looking for big Knesset gains. Even those parties that have not hired American consultants will peer across the sea for inspiration on what might work and what could flop, attempting to translate the US playbook for the Israeli political context.

Grand Ol’ Likud

Finkelstein advised Likud all the way to its win in 2013, but in 2015, the party looked to veteran Republican pollster John McLaughlin, CEO and partner at McLaughlin & Associates.

In 2021, Likud will continue to seek the advice of McLaughlin, who has also worked with US President Donald Trump, including on his losing 2020 effort.

Netanyahu in particular has a long history of relying on American strategists. Florida native Ron Dermer, a close adviser who is wrapping up a term as envoy to the US, was introduced to Netanyahu partly due to his association with GOP pollster Frank Lutz.

In April 2019, as the first of four eventual near-consecutive election campaigns drew to a close, Netanyahu put McLaughlin in front of the cameras, boasting that he was Trump’s pollster and having the American explain that the numbers showed Likud falling behind.

The video was an iteration of what is known in Israel as a “gevalt campaign,” intended to scare right-wing voters away from smaller parties and into Likud’s arms.

McLaughlin has in the past been accused of telling clients what they want to hear. After the Capitol riots and Trump’s second impeachment, McLaughlin sent the president a memo claiming that polling showed most Americans were against impeachment and that Republican representatives who voted to impeach the president will pay politically, according to the Washington Post.

It is unclear how much Netanyahu uses McLaughlin’s advice, anyway. Within Likud circles Netanyahu is known as the ultimate self-consultant, preferring his instincts and his immediate family’s counsel over analytics.

For internal surveys in Israel, McLaughlin works with Israeli pollster Rafi Smith of Smith Consulting, analyzing his data. But Netanyahu usually consults with Likud campaign manager Ofer Golan, who is also said to use raw data from daily surveys, in decision-making.

US pollster John McLaughlin is seen alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an undated video. (Channel 13 screenshot)

Netanyahu and Golan “talk to each other using the numbers,” a source with knowledge of the campaign told The Times of Israel.

McLaughlin is not expected to fly to Israel for the March 2021 campaign, but will continue to work with the Likud’s campaign from abroad, ToI has learned.

Likud advisers do not see much in common between the US election and the current Israeli campaign. If anything, they appear to be trying to borrow a page from the Biden campaign’s decision to stay off Twitter and out of social media mudfights. Likewise, Likud will attempt to stay out of the social media fray and stick with its core pre-planned messages, formed on the basis of research data, according to a Likud source.

Netanyahu’s top aides have discussed leaving the social media squabbles to others, while “remaining above the fray,” according to a Likud source. One Likud adviser described Twitter as a closed loop, with influencers expressing the same opinions and boosting those opinions with their influence.

Such a strategy would take advantage of Netanyahu’s mastery at sticking to talking points and repeating them ad nauseum, without straying an inch.

The great emancipator

Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s top challenger, may be going the opposite direction, jumping into the fray and trying to get at the prime minister where it hurts most in the style of the US’s Lincoln Project, which made an artform of short, snarky videos designed to needle Trump with his bugbears, in the 2020 campaign.

On Sunday, reports emerged that Sa’ar, head of the New Hope party, had hired four Lincoln Project founders to advise his campaign. Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Stuart Stevens, and Reed Galen have worked in the past with former US president George W. Bush, Senator Mitt Romney, late senator John McCain, and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all Republicans.

MK Gideon Sa’ar in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

The move seems natural. The Lincoln Project was founded as an effort for Republicans vexed by Trump’s alleged corruption and ethical failings to campaign against him and draw conservatives to Joe Biden. Sa’ar’s party is seen as a home for Likud members and other right-wingers vexed by Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and ethical failings. The hiring appears to be a signal of where his campaign may be headed and how he intends to counter Netanyahu’s attacks on Sa’ar and company as “disgruntled leftists.”

The four may travel to Israel for a brainstorming session with Sa’ar, depending on coronavirus restrictions and flight availability, The Times of Israel has learned. Otherwise, meetings between the sides will continue on Zoom.

Georgia on Lapid’s mind

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid says he is maintaining his relationship with strategists linked to the Democratic party. Since 2014, Lapid has consulted regularly with Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, president of The Mellman Group and head of the Democratic Majority for Israel organization.

Lapid is also consulting with Florida Representative Ted Deutsch, with whom he has fostered a relationship in recent years. Speaking to The Times of Israel, Lapid was critical of the way Netanyahu had appeared to align himself with the Republican Party.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., speaks as the House Judiciary Committee hears investigative findings in the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump, December 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Netanyahu made a serious mistake,” he said over Zoom earlier this month. “He violated the sacred principle of apolitical relations with both US parties. He turned Israel into a branch of the Republican Party. President Trump is a great friend of Israel, he moved the embassy and introduced the recognition of the sovereignty over the Golan Heights… but that does not justify Netanyahu’s attitude toward the Democratic Party.”

“Make no mistake, President-elect Biden will be kind to Netanyahu. But Democrats are still upset with Israel and that could have been avoided. My relationship with the Democrats is obviously better than Netanyahu’s. They did not recover from the way Netanyahu behaved and they have a long memory and do not forgive easily” Lapid added, referring to Netanyahu’s frayed ties with the Barack Obama administration and embrace of Trump.

A person with knowledge of Yesh Atid’s campaign said the party is drawing inspiration from Stacey Abrams, a Georgia politician credited with playing a large role in flipping the state blue.

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Among the tactics Yesh Atid plans on adopting is one used by Democrats in Georgia ahead of the crucial January 4 Senate runoff, when they shifted from the drive-in rallies they had used in the general election to a more personal touch, sending campaign workers knocking door-to-door. For now, that strategy is impossible here, with Israel under a lockdown that prohibits travel of more than a kilometer, except for essential needs, but the restrictions are expected to ease up once infection numbers slacken, especially as the vaccine campaign soldiers on.

“When the lockdowns end, it will be important for us to get out and go door-to-door,” Lapid said. “These days, I can’t have 1,000 people attending my event, as I used to do in past campaigns. But our volunteers and party activists will be able to knock on 1,000 doors when the closures end. There is a known political principle called ‘People like us.’ It is when ordinary people go out and talk to voters. They can be an influential political factor and parties such as ours with a real ground operation will lead on Election Day.”

Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David (left) hands literature to a woman during a get-out-the-vote drive on December 19, 2020, in Dunwoody, Georgia. (Bita Honarvar/AP Images for The Human Rights Campaign)

The campaign will only focus on likely supporters, rather than trying to win over undecideds or supporters of other parties, with the idea that turnout will be crucial, an idea borrowed from the Americans.

And the party has learned from the Democrats that Zoom meetings should focus on the personal and the community level rather than trying to bring together thousands and emulate a large rally.

“Our Zoom meetings will be held at a local headquarters level,” Lapid said at a recent press conference. “We could have put together supporters from Kiryat Shmona in the North with supporters from Beersheba in the South, but our American ​​friends taught us to stay geographically local, even on Zoom.”

Learning to counter fake news

Left-wing Meretz is also looking to US political strategists for advice, a party official said, with a plan to up visibility through non-traditional media.

“Unfortunately, Meretz suffers from mainstream media obliviousness, thus we plan to use digital technologies and online platforms to overcome that disadvantage and convey our messages to places where our audience is,” the party official said.

Meretz party chairman Nitzan Horowitz, center, attends a protest of the LGBTQ community in Tel Aviv, July 14, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Meretz maintains close contact with Democratic adviser Jim Gerstein, founding partner of GBAO Strategic Communications, and also with Jewish political organizations such as J-Street and Partners for Progressive Israel, the latter a Jewish movement close to Meretz.

The party official said it was learning from the Americans how to deal with countering lies and attacks by pushing out its party’s progressive platform instead.

“We learned from the American system that there is a way to deal with fake news,” the official said. “The lies should not be repeated and echoed, and we can and should present an alternative and push for a social, health-care and economic changes.”

“We should not indulge in the ‘anyone-but-Bibi’ campaign, but present factual and serious choices to various issues.”

Hit the road

Unlike in the US, where donor money flowed into what became the most expensive election season ever, in Israel donations are capped, limiting how much outreach parties can do.

Amir Schneider (no relation to this author), an attorney who was one of two campaign managers for Trump in Israel last year, warned that door-knocking campaigns provided little bang for the buck, and that Zooms were only 30% as efficient as live events.

Then Democratic presidential candidate, former vice president Joe Biden appears on a ‘Zoom with Oprah Winfrey’ virtual show at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, October 28, 2020. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

“It is important to remember that elections, in Israel and elsewhere, are won by the margin and not by the majority. So each campaign puts the effort into scraping voters from its own base. Going door to door, convincing people, is the most expensive campaign,” he told The Times of Israel. “The campaign must pay hundreds of activists in each city. In Israel, I have hardly encountered an effective door-to-door campaign, except perhaps once, by Nir Barkat, in his contest to be Jerusalem’s Mayor. He equipped his activists with tablets and they went out all over Jerusalem, with unlimited funds.”

The need for efficiency, along with a move to digital, makes digital assets essential and among the larger parties only Yesh Atid and Likud have serious data banks and other assets. Both parties have large mailing lists, political coordinators organizing via WhatsApp and other apps, voters databases, and other digital assets, such as Election Day management apps like Elector, which is used by Likud to identify pockets of support.

Smaller niche parties have focused more on digital outreach assets that zero in on their niches, while it remains unclear what New Hope and Ron Huldai’s Israelis Party have at their fingertips.

Biden supporters attend a drive-in rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden, at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, November 1, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Schneider said he did not envision drive-in rallies of the type used by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Israel, as they were merely a reaction to Trump’s refusal to cancel in-person events.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

But he also said that while digital operations were essential, there was no substitute for hitting the pavement.

“Field operations are a necessity. Back in March 2020, Netanyahu crisscrossed the country unlike any of his campaigns before. It was reflected in the results, as he reached 36 seats,” he said. “But the Republicans lost and they need to pay attention to the hard work that was put in by the Democrats, especially in Georgia.”

Most Popular
read more: