During a stroll along Tel Aviv’s Lilienblum Street, it was difficult to avoid noticing that the ground floor of one office building had been converted into a campaign headquarters, packed with “Victory 2015” signs and young people wearing V15 campaign buttons. Hanging on the wall is a map of greater Tel Aviv, marked into numbered districts, and scrawled on a whiteboard are various slogans in advertising language.
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The place looks like a television set for a series about a presidential campaign. I signed up and walked into a motivational lecture with about 30 enthusiastic young Israelis who were learning how to approach potential voters. After a few minutes they realized there was a journalist in the room, and a more organized meeting was arranged in the adjacent offices of the OneVoice Movement.
It was only a month ago that Itamar Weizmann, a 22-year-old history student, posted the following, rather banal, text on Facebook: “Hi. There’s an election. Let’s do something different this time.”
Nimrod Dweck, the 33-year-old founder of Dice Marketing whose Linkedin page describes him as a “marketing ninja,” pounced on the idea. The pair rapidly arranged a meeting of activists. Former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin jumped on board, and supporter numbers are rising constantly.
The group, which began with nothing more than an idea and youthful energy, soon morphed into something far greater, a movement with real offices whose goal is nothing less than an electoral upset. If the momentum continues to gather according to plan, V15 could carry influence in the upcoming election.
With the help of American money and a former campaign adviser to President Barack Obama, V15 is trying to replace Israel’s government. The money and organization comes from V15’s partnership with OneVoice.
Founded in 2002 by the Mexican-born, U.S.-based businessman and philanthropist Daniel Lubetzky, OneVoice describes itself on its website as “an international grassroots movement that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution.” It is known for bringing various celebrities to the region, including actor Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”’s George Costanza), but it has faced suspicion from all sides, particularly the left — and like George, the organization never really gained traction.
OneVoice is expected to merge with V15 before the March 17 election. The groups have a common goal: To recruit tens of thousands of volunteers for house-to-house canvassing, knocking on anywhere between 150,000 and 1 million doors — a method that was effective in Obama’s first presidential campaign, in particular.
Their secret campaign weapon is Jeremy Bird, a 36-year-old American political strategist who worked for Obama. Bird has come with a team of four consultants that will try to channel the energies of V15 into an organized methodology. Bird was the field director for South Carolina in Obama’s primary campaign for the 2008 election. Early opinion polls in the state gave Obama and Hillary Clinton equal odds, but in the primary vote Obama beat her two to one. That victory helped Obama to clinch the Democratic nomination, and it resulted in Bird’s promotion to deputy national field director for the 2008 national election. For Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Bird was national field director. After the election, Bird parlayed his success into 270 Strategies, a political consulting firm that helps election campaigns all over the world to build grassroots strategies.
“It’s not right to do in Israel exactly what we did in the United States, the context is completely different,” admits Bird, who still has some of the Hebrew he learned as a student in Haifa in 1999. But he says the mess in the OneVoice office — many empty cartons from newly purchased equipment — reminds him of Obama headquarters, he says: lots of energy and lot of talent. Israel is an ideal country for a door-knocking campaign because of its relatively small size, Bird says. Israel has very complex politics, a large number of parties and relatively high voter turnout, he says, adding that it’s possible to speak with enough people here to replace the government.
“The goal is not to promote a specific candidate or party, but to put your ego aside for the greater good,” Dweck says. When I asked whether their goal was “Anyone but Bibi,” referring to the nickname of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they corrected me: “We say ‘replace the government,’ it’s not directed at specific individuals. There have been many years of right-wing governments during which little happened, it’s time to change course and give people hope.”
“The response is great because there is great disgust,” Dweck says. “Almost 2,000 people offered to volunteer. We will go to homes and we will win. Bird’s team helps direct the wave of enthusiasm so it doesn’t turn into loud noise that disappears but rather into a wave of change. The work with the research team that Bird brought has really ignited sparks. There are Israelis with experience who were in shock over the level of cross-checking of information” the team does, he says.