Which scheming party, duping you with cutting-edge tech, are you voting for?
Op-ed: Elections 2019

Which scheming party, duping you with cutting-edge tech, are you voting for?

Desperate for victory, our politicians posture, dissemble and adopt cutthroat new techniques to win our support. Damage control, as Likud’s campaign chief has noted, can come later

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Blue and White head Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Noam Revkin Fenton, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Blue and White head Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Noam Revkin Fenton, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

About a month after the April election, Likud’s media-shy campaign manager Ofer Golan gave his first-ever interview, in which he explained that it was legitimate and even necessary to lie and deceive in politics.

Golan led Likud’s successful 2015 campaign, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first experimented with the political uses of targeted fear-mongering, warning that Arabs were “heading to the polls in droves,” that right-wing rule was in peril, that his opponents were terrorist sympathizers, and so on.

In the April race, Golan led the campaign that claimed that Benny Gantz was mentally ill and had joined other “leftists” in mourning the deaths of Hamas terrorists. He also helped engineer the campaign to place secret cameras in over a thousand Arab polling stations — not, as Likud claimed, to deter fraud (how could secret cameras deter anyone?), but to catch video evidence of fraud and hold on to it for later use by the campaign. Golan also helped push the rumors in March that claimed Iranian intelligence had obtained evidence from Gantz’s hacked phone that he had been unfaithful to his wife Revital, and was now vulnerable to extortion by Israel’s worst enemy.

Golan, in short, believes in the cutthroat political style that has increasingly defined the politics of the present day.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Memorial Day ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on May 8, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

In the May 10 interview with the Globes business journal, the paper’s political editor Tal Schneider asked Golan a pointed question about the ruling party’s ethics.

“Let me ask you about ethics and morals,” she began. “You know Gantz is sane, that he was the chief of staff [of the army], that Netanyahu appointed him and worked with him, that he led the IDF. And yet you still chose to pump out this message that he’s not well, that his mental state is not good, and you know it’s untrue.”

“He said Netanyahu was a traitor,” Golan shot back.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz addresses a demonstration outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid prosecution in three criminal cases he faces. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Gantz never said that,” retorted Schneider, an attorney by training who had come prepared: “It was Moshe Ya’alon [no. 3 in Blue and White] who said, ‘The submarines scandal has the potential to reach the level of treason,’ and even that was only at the end of March. Your campaign about Gantz’s insanity began earlier,” in early February.

“What does it matter?” Golan replied. “You can launder it any way you want. When they put up that [campaign] video about the submarines, the subtext was that the prime minister is a traitor.” (The Blue and White campaign video about the submarines scandal was first posted online on April 1.)

The conversation went on like that for a few minutes more, with Golan avoiding Schneider’s questions and instead accusing Blue and White of running its own negative campaign. Schneider wouldn’t take the bait, hammering Golan again and again on Likud’s claims about Gantz’s insanity and lack of patriotism, and even the whispers about infidelity (Golan soon admitted he had no idea what might have been on Gantz’s phone when it was hacked, but insisted Gantz owed it to the public to make all his phone’s data available for inspection.)

Finally, cornered, Golan delivered what may be the most important statement uttered in recent years by an Israeli political manager.

“You’re asking me about my personal view about how a campaign is supposed to work, so I’m answering you with what I’ve said in the past: First you win the campaign, then you do damage control. I said that in 2015, when there was criticism of the ‘leftist NGOs bringing out the Arabs’ video.”

He admitted that not all Likud campaign staffers were happy with that direction.

In this Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 photo, Blue and White party leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and his wife Revital poses for photos at their home in Rosh Haayin, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“There was some discussion inside the campaign, ‘Did we go too far? Were we too aggressive?’ When that came up, I shut down the discussion. There’s nothing to discuss here. I must win.”

Wagging the dog

As they went to the polls on Tuesday, Israeli voters were making their choice through a thick fog of the sort Golan and his colleagues are paid to create. But manipulative campaigns aren’t the only, or even the main, cause for Israeli voters’ apathy and frustration when it comes to their political choices.

There is a deeper malaise afflicting the Israeli public debate, a culture of posturing and dissembling that has left a yawning gap between political rhetoric and reality. A generation of Israeli politicians has grown up seemingly incapable of the sort of candid bluntness that once characterized the country’s leaders.

Last Tuesday, in a last-minute election gambit to siphon votes from the far-right, Netanyahu announced he would apply Israeli sovereignty to all West Bank settlements if he is re-elected, and would do so in the Jordan Valley immediately after the election.

Annexation has long been seen among Likud leaders as part of the rhetorical pageantry of the right, a patriotic virtue signal acknowledged by all rightists and avoided by all clear-headed policymakers, on the grounds that it drove Israel closer to absorbing millions of Palestinians it does not want, and who don’t want to be absorbed by it.

Netanyahu, for example, has for years fought tooth and nail against efforts to push for annexation in the West Bank, and was long the main target of West Bank settlement leaders’ ire for the exceedingly slow pace of construction he permitted in Israeli settlements deep inside the West Bank — slower, by all accounts, than that allowed under left-led governments in the past.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if re-elected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In early 2018, Likud’s powerful Central Committee voted to declare the party officially in favor of annexation in the West Bank. It was a strange ritual, a declaration of loyalty to the ancient homeland that had no more policy significance than the committee’s vote in 2004 against the disengagement from Gaza, which the Likud prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, would carry out anyway the following year.

Netanyahu did nothing to stop the 2018 vote, but also did not attend it and did nothing to identify himself with the initiative. It was clear to him and to everyone voting in that hall that the declaration was not intended as a demand of him to carry out an annexation, but rather as a shot at the far-right Jewish Home, now called Yamina, which had long accused Netanyahu of being a secret leftist willing to negotiate away parts of the land of Israel.

The vote was meant to grant Netanyahu political cover to continue avoiding annexation, not to pressure him to annex.

Now locked in a race for his political life, the prime minister made the fateful decision last week to lean into years’ worth of posturing.

And so the Jordan Valley annexation is less than what it seems, but also more.

First, it is, of course, petty electioneering; Netanyahu would not have taken the step if he didn’t calculate that it could benefit his election campaign. After all, as Yamina leaders have noted since his announcement, he didn’t have to wait until the week before an election to make the promise; he’s had 10 years to carry it out. And, as right-wing voters well know, Netanyahu has a history of promising rightist policies in the lead-up to an election that are forgotten the day after.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu observes the Jordan Valley with IDF officers during a tour in 2011. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Second, it is a policy he has long opposed but pretended to support, demonstrating the real-world costs of the current political culture of dissimulating and tip-toeing one’s way around hard truths: If you pretend to support something for long enough, you may eventually run out of excuses for not carrying it out.

Third, the actual contours of the annexation plan are not controversial among Israelis. Blue and White reacted to last week’s announcement not with moral indignation, but with a cynical questioning of Netanyahu’s intentions. “Netanyahu adopted our plan,” some party officials declared, but they insisted he was less likely to carry it out than they were.

Netanyahu tried to portray the proposal as evidence of his right-wing bona fides, but it is anything but. The Israeli political system has largely internalized a border between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, and it runs roughly along the contours of the “Allon Plan,” first put forward by the left in the 1960s, which seeks to claim for Israel areas of the West Bank deemed to have overwhelming security importance for the Jewish state, such as the Jordan Valley or the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, while leaving everything else to an independent Palestinian state. (There were many different versions of the plan, some with Palestinian statehood and some without, and no government ever adopted it as formal policy, but it serves as a thumbnail outline of what a best-case scenario looks like in the West Bank in the view of generations of Israeli planners.)

When Palestinian leaders seemed willing to negotiate for peace in the 1990s, the Israeli left shifted closer to the Palestinian vision of the final map, with almost all the West Bank, including significant parts of Jerusalem and even the Temple Mount, in Palestinian hands. Since the collapse of that peace process, and with most Israelis no longer believing Palestinian leaders are capable of delivering peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal, the old Israel-centric view of the territory’s future has made a comeback in the public debate.

What, then, can be said of Netanyahu’s annexation plan? The timing is suspicious as he grasped for right-wing votes days before election day. After election day, when those votes are no longer on the line, will he still be willing to incur the international as well as domestic political costs of implementing the promised annexation? And if he’s stood in the way of such a move for so long, what, if not his campaign’s electoral calculations, might have changed his mind?

Pious platitudes

This glib, vacuous sort of Israeli politics is not, as Benny Gantz has insisted during the campaign, an invention of Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor is it limited to the large mainstream parties.

Consider one of the major legislative achievements of the ultra-Orthodox factions in recent years. In January 2018, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting neighborhood supermarkets from staying open on Shabbat. The law, proposed by Haredi parties, was bitterly opposed by many secular Israelis, who saw it as Haredi trampling over their choice not to live according to religious strictures.

Aryeh Deri speaks in front of a picture of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef during a conference of the Shas party in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on March 5, 2019. (Flash90)

The public debate at the time largely missed the deep crisis in the Haredi political world that drove the demand for the law. Leadership in the Haredi community flows from rabbinic authority and fealty to that authority. The deaths of three spiritual leaders, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in 2012, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2013 and Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman in 2017, have left a hole at the heart of Haredi political life, an absence of a living authority powerful enough to shield Haredi politics from its own fervency. Those rabbis knew how to navigate the unstated compromise at the heart of Israeli political life, the live-and-let-live agreement sometimes dubbed the “status quo” that allows the many divergent tribes of Israeli society to coexist and find common cause.

Bereft of that authority, Haredi politicians have been forced to rely on lesser rabbis, less renowned and less authoritative, for patronage. Shas’s September 2019 campaign, for example, included no mention of its current rabbinic leadership, but was overwhelmingly made up of pictures and quotes of Yosef. (In one campaign poster put up throughout Jerusalem, Yosef’s face is seen next to a Shas ballot, with a quote attributed to him promising that the slip of paper is “your ballot on judgment day.”)

But these appeals to the lost leaders are no replacement for the real thing. With the deceased master no longer able to function as a political totem, political rhetoric in the Haredi community must take its cue from his imagined legacy. This is a democratization of sorts. After all, who decides what the great rabbi’s legacy should be, what lessons or political commitments should be drawn from it, or whether those lessons were being sufficiently adhered to?

In the Haredi community, of course, only the truly great and wise are empowered to counsel restraint and moderation. The deepest logic of Haredi life is not theological but sociological. Boundaries are drawn around and within the community as the primary mechanism for communal sanctification and survival. It is a logic that has no end, and absent the steadying hand of a widely-admired spiritual leader, it is usually the more stringent and strident that wins the day.

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman speaks at the 2016 Israel Medical Conference, in Jerusalem on August 16, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ironically, while this pressure toward zealotry is true of Haredi politics, it is not true of Israeli Haredi society generally, which countless studies and surveys have shown growing more “Israelified,” more modernized, more educated and more committed to integration with the larger body politic with each passing year.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of the main Ashkenazi Haredi political party United Torah Judaism, personifies both trends, and the growing gap between political rhetoric and social reality that they have created.

In the fall of 2015, Litzman won unprecedented rabbinic approval to be appointed a full minister in the government of the Jewish state, a move rejected for decades by the Haredi rabbinic world over opposition to Zionism’s secularizing elements. Once minister, Litzman also acted in ways that were once unthinkable for a Haredi public figure, but now passed unnoticed. For example, on Memorial Day in 2017, he represented the government at one of the many ceremonies held around the country to commemorate the sacrifices of fallen soldiers. During the ceremony, he was handed a ceremonial wreath from a female soldier, and he took it without hesitation. The ease with which he shared in the broader Zionist civic religion would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and still controversial just 10 years ago.

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a Memorial Day ceremony, May 1, 2017. (Twitter screen capture)

But it was not to last.

In late 2017, much to their horror, Haredi media outlets discovered that Israel Railways had employed Jews to work on railroad repairs during the Sabbath — and had been doing so for years. Haredi media began to posture and virtue-signal with abandon, fabricating a coalition crisis that was only resolved when Health Minister Litzman, unable to quash the rabble-rousing, became its leader and dramatically resigned from his cabinet post.

His public demand to reschedule railway repairs to the work week, which would snarl traffic nationwide, was too silly to even be debated in the cabinet. He resigned, but miraculously found his political footing within days when Netanyahu appointed him to his old post as deputy minister.

In the short period when he was neither health minister nor deputy health minister, he didn’t even bother to cancel his regular ministerial schedule, continuing to visit hospitals and clinics and manage the daily affairs of the ministry.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri (right) speaks with United Torah Judaism leader MK Yaakov Litzman (left) during the opening session of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But Litzman’s pious bravado soon became a political problem for fellow Haredi political leaders Aryeh Deri of Shas and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, who found themselves the targets of Haredi media demands that they, too, take a stand for the Sabbath. Deri went looking for a way to prove his own spiritual zeal, and found it in the supermarkets law.

The bill passed into law on January 18, 2018. The following day, with polls showing some four Knesset seats swinging from Likud to secularist Yesh Atid over fears of Haredi coercion reaching into secular towns, Deri publicly vowed he would not use his new powers to shut down supermarkets on the Sabbath. He explained that the law was only meant to enable him to restore the “status quo,” the balancing act at the heart of Israeli society. He did not explain how the law did so, or how the status quo had been threatened.

‘To creep me out, to frighten me, to threaten me’

Israelis went to the polls Tuesday to choose from among a political elite that has grown used to the lie, to dissimulating on every question all the time, from the future of the West Bank to the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Likud’s attempts to fight purported “voter fraud” by filming the voter rolls is not, as many have noted, about fighting voter fraud. The campaign targeted Arab polling stations but not Jewish ones, irrespective of the number of complaints or evidence of malfeasance received from any particular station. The company that deployed the cameras on April 9 has boasted publicly of its successful vote-suppression effort.

On Monday, to its embarrassment, Likud’s pre-recorded election-day robo-calls leaked to the press, revealing its plans for a flood of phone calls reporting low turnout among right-wing voters and a massive rush on the polls by Arabs. How Likud knows days ahead of time that this will be the situation on election day is not explained in the recordings.

Yet the anti-Arab campaign is just the start. Likud’s cameras are not intended just to frighten some voters. They are also meant to track the rest.

As reported by Globes, Likud has invested millions in constructing an ever-growing and increasingly sophisticated database of Israeli voters, much in the way that social networks construct profiles and algorithmic analyses of their users’ personalities and interests so they can feed them better ads. Likud appears to be planning to use this database to target its messaging, urging some voters to vote and convincing others not to, in carefully manipulated appeals tailored to each voter’s views and personalities (and, of course, ethnicity). To do that, its campaign war room needs to be able to track potential voters’ behavior on election day.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, accompanied by Likud activists, makes a campaign stop at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on September 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cameras pouring over the voter rolls at each station would allow the party to track who voted and when, and to target with relevant phone calls and text messages over the course of election day those who haven’t. The party does not appear ready to deploy such a tracking campaign on Tuesday, but it has worked hard to build those capabilities for the future.

While the media has focused on the apparent bid to scare Arab voters, Central Elections Committee head Justice Hanan Melcer nixed Likud’s cameras campaign over those privacy concerns.

We know who you are

It’s easy to pick on Likud, which has been the most brazen in these efforts. But it is hardly alone in turning to the new methods.

This reporter has been careful never to answer a political pollster or respond to political ads via SMS or Whatsapp, and has never publicly declared his political loyalties. So it was a surprise to receive a phone call from Blue and White this week, with the campaign staffer on the other side revealing that this reporter was classified by sophisticated computer modeling as a “wavering” voter.

When asked what went in to making that determination — does Blue and White follow voters’ social media accounts? — the staffer sensed danger. He wished “all of us good luck” and promptly hung up.

Even the traditionalist United Torah Judaism has proven keenly interested in the new capabilities offered by technology.

Rabbi Israel Hager votes in parliamentary elections at a polling station in Bnei Brak, Israel on April 9, 2019. (AP/Oded Balilty)

The party’s largest branch, in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak outside Tel Aviv, pulled local voters’ names, ID numbers, home addresses and assigned polling stations from their database and sent the information to an ad firm, which in turn printed the personal information on refrigerator magnets and pamphlets bearing the party’s campaign messages and mailed the personalized literature to voters’ homes.

“At first I thought the goal was to convince me to go vote for the sake of the Sabbath, the Torah and Litzman,” one Haredi resident of the city, Haim, wrote on Facebook last week after receiving a magnet and a pamphlet bearing his and his wife’s names and ID numbers.

“But after thinking about it some more, I’m wondering if the goal isn’t to creep me out, to frighten me, to threaten me. Is this even legal?”

Indeed, legal experts have opined that UTJ likely broke the law in handing voter information to the printing company, a criminal breach of election privacy laws that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

A view of the voting slips used in Tuesday's elections for the 19th Knesset (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A view of the voting slips used in elections for the 19th Knesset, January 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But for UTJ, increasingly worried that voters are less eager to turn out to the polling station just five months after the last vote, the message was too important to bother with election laws. It was a message rendered all the more cutting by the tightknit social bonds of Haredi society: We know who you are and where you live, and we’ll know if you don’t turn out to vote.

As the party’s campaign slogan cheerfully explains: “In the moment of truth, every vote counts!”

Likud’s camera-toting election monitors have yet to raise the alarm about UTJ’s possible electoral malfeasance in Bnei Brak.

Obscuring success

The Israeli voter is often scolded for his or her apathy and disgust at the state of national politics. But there is a great deal to be disgusted about.

As Israelis went to vote on Tuesday, they had to wend their way through a thick fog thrown up by the campaigns, and choose from among a host of chest-thumping hypocrites that is all this age of empty politics seems able to produce. They had to re-elect a political class, in one formation or another, that no longer believes in the wisdom of the crowd, not since it discovered the crowd’s wisdom could be so handily hoodwinked.

Ironically, one of the tragedies of this manipulative new political culture is that it obscures the startling competence and success of Israel’s political class in delivering over many decades on its most important duties, from national defense and public safety, to the responsible stewarding of the economy and the health care system, to the slow but steady expansion of civil freedoms and economic opportunities, including for long-marginalized minorities.

There may be an inverse correlation between Israel’s actual condition and the way its politicians talk about it, as an eternally fragile, declining polity always on the cusp of being overrun by one’s political opponents. The likes of Ofer Golan may not want us to believe that. But this voter, for one, certainly hopes so.

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