Netanyahu's Shelved Campaign: Herzog Portrayed as a Woman

What constitutes a legitimate excuse to dissolve the government: the poll Netanyahu conducted before firing Livni and Lapid

The rejected poster of Herzog.

An advertising campaign that the Likud party prepared for the 2015 election but never ran portrayed the leader of its main rival as a woman to mock the opposition’s hopes for a dramatic change on Election Day.

At the time, Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union party was polling ahead of Likud. But Likud ended up winning the election.

As Haaretz reported earlier, Likud conducted numerous internal polls prior to the 2015 election. Some were intended to test potential ad campaigns, and campaign staffers then began preparing video clips, posters and talking points based on the poll results.

Alongside the mainstream campaign, various guerrilla campaigns with cruder messages were prepared. Some were meant to be distributed anonymously, in the hope that people would see the images, be enthusiastic and spread them on their own. Others appeared on the party’s official Facebook page.

Haaretz has obtained copies of some of the campaigns that Likud prepared but didn’t actually use. One of them was a poster meant to be sent out via social media that showed Herzog as if he had undergone a sex change operation and become a woman.

The poster was based on a photograph of Herzog without a shirt that was taken by Yanai Yechiel and published in Haaretz Magazine in November 2013. The Likud altered the photo to add makeup, earrings, blond hair and a hair band with a bow.

The slogan on the poster was “revolution,” and it was intended to show that the “real” revolution undergone by Herzog was far from the electoral revolution he was dreaming of.

The rejected poster of Herzog.

Another poster showed Herzog as a small child holding the hands of his “parents” – strategist Reuven Adler and MK Tzipi Livni. “He’s incapable of managing by himself,” the slogan said.

The person responsible for Likud’s 2015 campaign strategy was Nir Hefetz. He coordinated among all the different players and was responsible for the strategy that ultimately produced the party’s big victory.

He was helped by Aron Shaviv, a political strategist, and Shlomo Filber, today director general of the Communications Ministry, who was in charge of the campaign headquarters. Other, more junior staffers were also involved in preparing content. Ofer Golan was head of the response team; Eli Hazan headed the print media team; Boaz Stambler, today Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, was the campaign’s economic spokesman; and Erez Tadmor, co-founder of the virulently anti-leftist Im Tirtzu organization, was the content coordinator and head of the talking points team. Topaz Luk and Jonatan Urich were in charge of the Facebook campaign, and continue to run Netanyahu’s new media operation today.

Several campaign staffers who spoke with Haaretz confirmed that the Herzog posters described above were in fact prepared, but were never used. Others said they had never seen this material.

Livni, who was Zionist Union’s No. 2, was also a target during the campaign. Likud’s polls showed that Herzog was more popular than Livni in every respect: People considered him more suited to be prime minister and to deal with the issues and were more likely to vote for him.

Likud therefore prepared two posters showing senior Hamas officials – one featuring Khaled Meshal and the other Ismail Haniyeh. Both posters showed the men on the phone with the slogan, “Here’s the person who always answers Tzipi Livni,” alongside a speech bubble showing Meshal/Haniyeh saying “Zibi?” (i.e. Tzipi with a thick Arabic accent).

Another shelved campaign included pictures of Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi along with various quotes about his party’s willingness to hook up with other left-wing parties to keep Likud from getting a parliamentary majority. The posters bore the slogan, “It’s us or them. Only Likud. Only Netanyahu.”

Yet another campaign was prepared in response to a poll showing that a whopping 75 percent of respondents supported Netanyahu’s decision to go to Paris in 2015, together with many other world leaders, to attend a solidarity rally following the terror attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket.

The campaign consisted of two posters. One showed criticism of the trip in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth along with the slogan “In Noni’s eyes,” referring to Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes. The other showed Netanyahu, looking dignified, with the slogan “In the world’s eyes.”

A variation of this campaign involved one poster showing the criticism in Yedioth along with the slogan “Bibi is criticized for coming,” and another poster showing criticism that appeared on Fox News with the slogan “Obama is criticized for not coming.” 

Hefetz told Haaretz he never saw any of this material at any point in the campaign, “and it certainly never reached Prime Minister Netanyahu. Had material like this ever come to our attention, in any case I would not have approved it, and certainly the prime minister wouldn’t have. If such material was indeed produced, it was presumably shelved at a lower level and never approved for publication, like many other ideas that were raised by advertising people during the campaign but then shelved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is utterly opposed in principle to campaigns of this kind.”

Herzog said, “This discovery elicits revulsion, but it mainly indicates Netanyahu’s very problematic character – the serious personality flaws that have accompanied him throughout his public career. His only interest is personal survival, and he’s willing to put every sacred value, every norm and every word of incitement on the pyre, all for the sake of momentary political gain. "

Also, not long before his December 2014 announcement that he was going to elections, Netanyahu had a comprehensive poll conducted to measure the status of his coalition partners, his rivals and public opinion on everything related to dissolving the government and acceptable reasons for doing so. The idea itself to dissolve the government did not come from the polls. The alliance between the prime minister and his partners – Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett, Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid and Livni – was failing from the early days of the third Netanyahu government. Everything related to diplomacy became routine confrontations with the heads of the Hatnuah and Yesh Atid parties.

Yet Netanyahu’s motivation derived from a survey of 754 Jewish Israelis. While only 13 percent said they’d vote for Likud, the same percentage said they’d vote for Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi, and other statistics encouraged Netanyahu to risk election. While the poll also gave more votes to Zionist Union, more voters said they’d vote for a rightist bloc over a left-center bloc by a 32-26 percent margin. Moreover, Netanyahu had a large lead over Herzog as the preferred prime minister, while 81 percent and 63 percent respectively opposed seeing Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett in the prime minister’s residence in Balfour Street.

After seeing that 69 percent of interviewees responded that Lapid had done a poor job as finance minister, Netanyahu was emboldened to dismiss him and call him a “failure in managing the economy.” Crucially, 48 percent of respondents thought that Netanyahu’s manner of handling his unruly ministers up to that point was weakening his leadership. Thus, Netanyahu evidently saw no choice but to fire them. It also helped that 48 percent supported going to an election because of the behavior of the coalition, while only 43 percent opposed new elections.