The Doomsday Weapon: How Likud Won the Election at the Last Minute

The defense strategies, the secret polling data, the videos – campaign managers try to analyze how Netanyahu pulled it off.

Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
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Likud activists celebrate election results, March 17, 2015.
Likud activists celebrate election results, March 17, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

If there was an awards competition combining politics and advertising, chances are the Likud public relations people in the campaign leading up to the March 17 election would win this year. It’s been a long time since Israel has seen a battered Likud political brand trailing its major competitor, the Zionist Union, and struggling to develop an innovative message; yet in the end Likud sailed to victory with 30 Knesset seats, compared to the Zionist Union’s 24.

Even so, a large number of the PR people involved in the two parties’ campaigns have said that it’s still too early to render a professional judgment on what happened.

“We will only draw conclusions when everything settles down a little and research is carried out,” says one of them. “Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this election campaign will be remembered in the future, both because it attracted wide media coverage in Israel and worldwide, and because it was marked by the ‘State of Tel Aviv’’s burning desire to replace Benjamin Netanyahu and, on the other hand, apathy in cities such as Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, where near the end of [Election Day] residents came out to vote nonetheless because of the scaremongering.”

Conversations with those involved in the two slates’ campaigns do shed some light on what happened in the final months leading up to the vote. In December, when work on the campaign got underway, the Likud campaign headquarters looked at polls it had commissioned and came to the conclusion that the agenda on which voters base their vote would for the first time in the country’s history focus on socioeconomic issues.

Likud campaign staff had to decide whether to play the socioeconomic game and present a list of campaign promises, or focus only on the party’s diplomatic and defense policy agenda. They came to the conclusion that if the head of their party, Prime Minister Netanyahu, was to win the election, it would only be on diplomatic and defense issues, and if he was enticed to engage the Zionist Union on social and economic policy, he would lose.

At the same time, it was decided to focus on a strategy holding that the people didn’t need more trendy parties like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, but instead what was necessary was a return to the good old days of two major parties as the only way to run the country. From that point on, the Likud campaign stuck to the strategy and refused to diverge from central messages, no matter the event or the political rival. That is why those on the right wing were unconcerned about criticism from the left of the prime minister’s diplomatic moves, understanding that such talk would leave the campaign focused on the topics that they wanted to be front and center.

“The goal was to maintain the agenda on foreign policy, and as a result we didn’t try to kill discourse when it related to this field,” says one leading Likud campaign strategist. “The moment the prime minister is in Paris, for example, the agenda is foreign policy and that’s good for us, and it doesn’t matter if we’re taking a hit over it or there are claims that he didn’t need to go. Such discourse highlighted the difference between the politician [Zionist Union leader] Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu the statesman. We knew that the left wing would attack us in any event, but we were talking to our public, Likud voters, and there we were getting stronger.”

Netanyahu approved everything, but not a controversial video

The expanded campaign headquarters was east of Tel Aviv in Or Yehuda, but every evening the campaign strategists convened on a smaller scale at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, a group of five people: campaign director Rami Yehudiha, CEO of the Lead Grey Direct advertising agency; strategic director Aron Shaviv, who in 2006 worked with Yisrael Beiteinu and more recently with right-wing and centrist candidates in central and eastern Europe; American polling analyst John McLaughlin, who is identified with the Republican Party in the United States, worked with Netanyahu in 2009 and was responsible for daily polling data; Nir Hefetz, who was designated as head of public relations (“hasbara” in Hebrew) for the campaign; and above all, the man who was present at every meeting and ultimately made every decision after the professionals expressed their opinions – Netanyahu himself.

It’s hard to discount the prime minster’s involvement in the campaign. “Marketing is Netanyahu’s profession,“ says a PR professional who worked with him in the past. “He knows how to read messages, polls and focus group analyses, and understands what is involved to the last detail. Meetings with him are intellectual discussions at a high level.”

Netanyahu’s son Yair directed the Likud campaign focusing on younger voters and initiated a controversial video featuring interior designer Moshik Galamin touring the Prime Minister’s Residence with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, in the course of which she pointed out threadbare aspects of the house. It was an apparent effort to counter reports of profligate spending there.

Everything was supposed to be cleared through the top staff at the Prime Minister’s Residence, but not everything was, including the Galamin video. Also not cleared that way, despite its prime importance to the campaign, was Netanyahu’s controversial speech about the Iranian nuclear program to a joint session of the U.S. Congress two weeks before the election. It was presented to the election staff as a fait accompli, and the polling data the whole way along showed that the public had a favorable view of the prime minister making the trip.

But it was actually after his return from the U.S. that public sentiment against Netanyahu seemed to intensify. In the rival Zionist Union, it appeared that their anti-Bibi campaign was bearing fruit and creating distaste for the prime minister. And the relative quiet that prevailed on the security front raised the issue as to whether the Likud decision to avoid focusing on socioeconomic issues might have been a mistake.

There was an air of siege at that stage of the campaign in the Netanyahu camp, and it was also then that the polls consistently showed Likud trailing the Zionist Union by four Knesset seats up to a week before Election Day. PR professionals from both camps said the gap was real at the time.

“If the elections had been held the prior Thursday, it would have finished 24 [for Zionist Union] to 20 [for Likud],” says Yehudiha.

Likud’s insistence on sticking with the defense message, despite the Zionist Union’s efforts to shift the focus to the housing shortage or even the bottle deposit scandal at the Prime Minister’s Residence allegedly involving Sara Netanyahu, were clear, but the left wing was dragged precisely into the realm that the right wing wanted to be the focus. It happened in connection with an election video in which Herzog talked about his high and less-than-forceful voice.

Likud election officials were also delighted with the wide media coverage of the anti-Netanyahu V15 movement, particularly after the Zionist Union took the bait rather than ignoring it, choosing to comment on the group that Likud sought to portray as a foreign-financed organization.

“What made the campaign a success primarily was discipline,” says Ofer Golan, the head of Likud’s response team. “We knew what events we wanted to float by the media at all times, what events we wanted in order to create an agenda and how we wanted to respond in general, not playing with the media and not creating public discourse. In addition, we thoroughly understood the right-wing voters. There was a huge amount of media coverage around the bottle-deposit affair, and this disgusted the public and made it look ridiculous.”

Ten days before the election, a left-wing rally was held in Tel Aviv where one speaker, artist Yair Garbuz, seemed to ridicule Jewish tradition, and this proved a turning point. As one person involved in the right-wing campaign said, it filtered down, feeding fears of a left-wing government and bringing Likud voters to the polls.

On the Thursday evening four days before the election, the polls presented to the top election team at the Prime Minister’s Residence still showed the Zionist Union with a four-seat lead. That was when its was decided to mount an all-out campaign urging people not to vote for other right-wing parties if they want to head off a left-wing government. “If you want Bibi, vote Bibi,” the slogan went.

During the last weekend before Election Day, Netanyahu launched a media blitz, the effects of which were felt almost immediately. The polls presented at the Sunday evening staff meeting showed Likud and the Zionist Union neck-and-neck at 26 Knesset seats. By Monday evening, the data showed Netanyahu leading by two seats. The Zionist Union wasn’t seeing this and there was concern among Netanyahu’s strategists that Likud’s internal polling data not leak out, hoping that the other side would be complacent.

On Election Day, in the morning, the Ynet news website published an item about high turnout among Israeli Arabs, and Netanyahu responded with a warning to right-wing voters that the Arabs were going to the polls “in droves.”

“Scare tactics are used in campaigns,” says a staff member from one of the campaigns. “People on the right were very much afraid and used their doomsday weapon, saying that the left wing would hand the country over to the Arabs. It’s a fear that exists in all of us, and it brought a lot of people out to vote who would not have turned out on an ordinary day. Likud didn’t come out with a socioeconomic platform or a diplomatic solution, but rather just said what they would not do.”

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