How Election Scare Tactics Kept Both Netanyahu and David Cameron in Power

It is not known to what extent the Likud's former campaign manager helped the Tories, but the right-wing swings of both parties were eerily similar.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London on September 10, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London on September 10, 2015.Credit: AFP

The successful parliamentary election campaigns mounted last year by Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Britian's David Cameron were eerily similar, despite the entire continent and vast cultural, political and historical differences that separated them. Polls predicted that both sitting prime ministers were likely to lose; but both staged remarkable recoveries in the final stages of their campaigns by playing on fears that a left-wing government – supported by Arabs in Israel’s case and by Scots in Britain – was about to come to power. The similarities may not be coincidental.

One of the main architects of the Likud’s campaign, strategist and campaign manager Aron Shaviv, met in London with senior members of the Conservative Party’s election team just four days after Netanyahu’s surprising six-seat victory over Zionist Union. His full role in Netanyahu’s reelection was chronicled for the first time last week in a short documentary by Channel Two’s political correspondent Amit Segal.

Shaviv refused to be interviewed for the documentary or to confirm the level of his involvement with the Tories. What is known, however, is that it was not the first time they had consulted with him. In 2013, Shaviv offered the Conservatives an online campaign to attract British voters living outside the country. He had run a similar expatriate voting campaign in Israel during the 2012 American presidential election, which quadrupled the number of U.S. citizens voting in Israel. That campaign was funded by donors with links to the Republican Party.

Shaviv's British project failed to materialize, though whether it played a part in his subsequently being called in by the Tories is not known. It could have been suggested by Netanyahu, who won his own reelection just 40 days before Cameron. The British prime minister is regarded in Jerusalem (and in London) as one of the world leaders closest to Israel’s prime minister and was the first to congratulate him on his victory last year.

The British-born Shaviv has advised election campaigns in dozens of countries around the world and was once a protégé of American elections guru, Arthur Finkelstein, who masterminded Netanyahu’s first election campaign in 1996. Whatever the influence he had on the Tories’ strategy, it is hard not to be struck by the comparison with the Israeli election campaign.

Toward the end of their campaigns, both Netanyahu and Cameron looked to voters to the right of their parties to boost their numbers. In Israel, the Likud targeted those considering voting for Habayit Hayehudi, while in Britain, the Tories focused on voters who were thinking of going over to the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

The scare tactics used by the two leaders were near-identical. In both cases, they adopted a stark narrative, warning of a “weak” left-wing victory with the support of a third party which did not have the nation’s best interests at heart.

With Netanyahu, that approach culminated on election day with his “Arab voters are moving in droves to the polls” message, accompanied by millions of text-messages to potential Likud voters, warning of high voter turnout in Arab towns and that Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would bring the Arab Joint List into his coalition. In Britain, it was only slightly more subtle, with the Conservatives using cartoons of Labour Leader Ed Miliband in the pocket of the leaders of the Scottish National Party, which supports breaking up the United Kingdom. Both men used the slogan “it’s us or them.”

Right-wing voters in both Israel and Britain were urged to vote “strategically,” setting aside their personal misgivings about Netanyahu or Cameron and their parties to ensure that the left didn’t get in. And in both cases it worked – Netanyahu overturned the Likud's deficit in the polls and Cameron surprised even himself by winning a parliamentary majority. Both remain in power, while the British-Israeli strategist who contributed to their victory prefers to remain behind the scenes.

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