Ariel Sharon's strategic advisers recommended he quit the Likud - and he took their advice. They suggested placing Shimon Peres at his side - and he complied. Afterward they thought he would do better to lower the profile of dovish politicians on his list - and he obeyed. Then they prescribed that it would benefit Kadima to adopt a more socially oriented profile - and Sharon hastened to announce he intends to lower the VAT on food products.
Similar behavior is observed in Amir Peretz's campaign headquarters. At the advice of his media experts he no longer speaks of his adherence to the Olso process, but promises to preserve Jerusalem's unity, makes belligerent statements following the suicide attack in Netanya and even allows ambiguity to creep into his socioeconomic positions.
Should this trend continue, this election campaign, apparently intended to be the arena for the ideological discussion on the territories' future, will turn into the Golden Cactus competition of the political public relations agents (The Golden Cactus is the Israeli advertising industry's annual award for the most successful ad campaign).
Advertisers have played an important role in previous election campaigns, but it seems this time they are not satisfied with merely providing the contestants with services; this time they are determining the positions for which the contestants are asking the public to vote for them.
Israel appears to be nearing the moment that advertisers Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Motti Morell set the national agenda instead of the politicians they were hired to serve. It is no longer so clear whether Sharon split the Likud because the party got in his way of continuing the talks with the Palestinians (or, alternatively, fixing the permanent borders unilaterally) or because poll analyst Kalman Gayer persuaded him this was what the pubic wanted. Likewise, one can no longer be sure if Amir Peretz wooed Avishay Braverman because he wants to implement his economic theory, or because adviser Uzi Baram whispered to him that the president of Ben-Gurion University would attract the votes of the business elite.
The point is that these moves are no longer mere advertising tricks but are seen as important political and economic programs. The advisers are not only taking advantage of security tensions - Hezbollah ambushes, terror attacks or the sword-brandishing in Iran - to give the candidates tough, resolute images, they are crossing the line between content and packaging. It is no longer clear if the flock of advisers buzzing round the ears of the contestants are the tailors making the royal garments or are becoming the king himself.
The influential status the election consultants are acquiring is based on the assumption that they are able not only to mirror public opinion but to knead it. This is an arrogant concept and is based on another assumption - that they are able to deceive the public and paralyze its judgment.
The political PR agents approach the elections as though their mission were to sell the public a consumption product. Therefore, they are designing for Sharon and Peretz images with gentle outlines that appeal to varied sectors of the population. However, the future of the territories and the relations with the Palestinians are not toothpaste; they are burning national issues that must be determined decisively on the basis of an ideological choice.
The political strategists' starting point is that it is possible to lead the public astray and that it is better to do that than to speak honestly. Therefore, the messages they recite to the politicians - and convey to the public through them - are ambiguous and blurred. The present election campaign resembles wandering in an ideological supermarket, in which Sharon and Peretz are peddling similar merchandise.
The big bang was intended to mark clear delineation lines between social democrats and free market advocates, between those in favor of a settlement with the Palestinians and those who have despaired of it. The PR agents are requested to step back and enable the politicians to speak with their own voice.
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