Netanyahu - Obama
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, in March 2012. Photo by GPO
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President Barack Obama won his second term in office thanks to the successful focus of his election campaign. He entered the race at a disadvantage, as a consequence of the deep economic crisis, but skillfully exploited the time and resources at his disposal in order to focus on the key states.

While Obama’s Republican rivals were wearing each other down in the primaries, the president’s campaign staff was already operating at full capacity and concentrated its efforts in Ohio and a handful of other states in which the American presidential election was decided.

Obama did not waste money on advertising in certain states, such as New York and California, where the voters were in any event going to vote for the Democratic candidate; nor did he make any effort to divert the attentions of voters in the Republicans’ bunker states in the South and the Midwest. His campaign only broke a sweat in places where each vote counted.

Obama and his people correctly assessed that Mitt Romney would be the Republican candidate, and they conducted a prolonged smear campaign against him, aimed at building a negative image of him among voters in Ohio.

The strategy paid off, and Obama won in practically all of the swing states, where voters led him to four more years in the White House. Romney put up a fight, and for a while his victory in the first presidential debate put him in position to take the lead. But Obama recovered, and ultimately the Democratic machine triumphed.

In the focus method, the candidate concentrates his efforts on a single goal: winning the election and remaining in power. He isn’t interested in being viewed as being right, or nice, or demonstrating rhetorical skills. He identifies the match point and strives toward it. As far as he is concerned, everything else is just noise.

Israel also has a politician who employs this method, Benjamin Netanyahu. He knows that elections are not decided at the ballot box, but in the Israeli President’s Residence. In the Israeli system, the Knesset acts like the American Electoral College. There a candidate has to amass 270 electors to win, and here he needs 61 MKs to recommend him as the candidate to assemble a coalition. How can they be secured? Israel does not have any swing states as in the U.S., but rather wavering political parties – Shas and Yisrael Beitenu. Both of them are capable of transferring the reins of power from right to left. Thus, to win the election, one must gain the support of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman.

In the past few years, Netanyahu has been engrossed in a single endeavor: keeping Shas and Lieberman at his side come hell or high water, even if it costs him the loss of his popularity among the general public. In the 2009 election, Netanyahu lost votes to Lieberman, but opted to absorb the loss of a few Knesset seats rather than risk the desertion of Yisrael Beitenu. That is why he avoided attacks on Lieberman. It came at the expense of a defeat at the polls – the Likud received fewer votes than Kadima – but in the real election, the one that takes place in the President’s Residence, Lieberman stood at Netanyahu’s side and ensured him the government. Since then, Netanyahu has repeatedly absorbed the insults of his foreign minister, and repeatedly held himself back from responding.

In the current campaign, Netanyahu preferred not to take any risks and bought Lieberman and his faction up front, in the “Likud Beitenu” deal. The public opinion polls show that the united list will lose seats, as compared to the situation of the two parties in the outgoing Knesset, but the union consolidates the right-wing bloc around Netanyahu’s candidacy and gives him a crushing advantage on his way toward a third term. Sealing the deal at this early stage is intended to deter Netanyahu’s potential rivals Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni from running against him. Like Obama, Netanyahu also enjoys the advantage of time and early preparation.

The period of indecision ends today, and the time will soon come for Olmert and Livni to decide if Obama’s victory gives them sufficient reason to run against Netanyahu, on the grounds that he has devastated Israel’s foreign relations and undermined American support. Alternately, they will assess that they don’t have a chance to crack the Likud’s protective armor and its “natural partners” among the right-wing parties. The decision they make will herald whether Israelis can expect a turbulent and passionate campaign in the weeks remaining until the election, or a relatively relaxed period, during which Shas, Labor, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will compete for their places in Netanyahu’s next coalition.