Gideon Sa’ar, the top challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming March 2021 elections, is sparing no effort, or expense, to win. This week his campaign confirmed that it has contracted the founders of the vaunted Lincoln Project to help Sa’ar dethrone King Bibi.
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The Lincoln Project has a certain aura: Founded by four longtime Republican campaigners in late 2019, the dissenters churned out 21st century jeremiads, viral videos distinguished by their sharp tone aimed at taking Trump down with a victory for the Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden. With ads that were by turns sarcastic, emotional or spooky, the project’s founders appeared almost like prodigal political sons returning to the values, if not the party, of Lincoln.
Can they replicate their success in Israel? Can this distinctly American story wrest victory from Netanyahu, a relentless winner in a faraway land, where all other contenders over the last decade have failed?
A number of factors could work in favor of Sa’ar’s new American partners.
For a start, they simply bring top-notch skills. Pull back the curtain on the Lincoln Project, and you find not Lincoln-caliber statesmen, but a group of seasoned political strategists – the kind Israel has been importing from America since 1969 (as far as is publicly known).
American campaign whisperers in Israel became flashy and famous in the 1990s, when Benjamin Netanyahu hired Arthur Finkelstein for his first, successful contest for the premiership. In 1999 Netanyahu’s rival Ehud Barak hired his own progressive dream team of U.S. celebrity consultants (disclosure: the progressive pollster on that campaign, Stan Greenberg, hired me) – and won.
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American gurus have been part of Israel’s campaign story ever since, working on winning and losing campaigns alike – sometimes becoming part of the public face of the campaign, if not part of their PR stardust.
There is often an auspicious political kinship between the American consultants and their Israeli contenders. Finkelstein was the go-to wizard of conservative, right-wing populist candidates. Barak’s dream team – James Carville, Bob Shrum and Greenberg – was at the cutting edge of progressive politics in the era of globalization.
The four new Lincoln Project men may also have a mind-meld with Sa'ar, or at least with his message: the Americans speak the language of the small-c conservative right. Sa’ar has railed against Likud for drifting with Netanyahu’s cult of personality, arguing that true-blue conservatives – or what Israelis sometimes call the liberal right-wing – must vote for his New Hope party.
To American ears, the labels can be confusing: in Israel, the mainstream right-wing is generally hardline on security and illiberal nationalists in the conflict with the Palestinians. But this same group is less fervently religious than Israel’s hard right, it prefers the separation of religion and state, and broadly tolerates socially progressive causes like LGBT rights. Unlike American politics, at present, there is little to distinguish the mainstream Israeli right-wing from center or even left-leaning parties on economic policies.
The Lincoln men may have a good ideological overlap with their Israeli client. But they’ll surely target Netanyahu personally, as well.
In the U.S., the Lincoln Project campaign’s strategy “got under Trump’s skin,” and maybe they can “unsettle” Netanyahu too, my longtime friend and colleague Jim Gerstein tells me. He is a Democratic strategist in Washington who has worked on numerous House and Senate races, as well as campaigns for center-left parties in Israel.
Trump and Netanyahu certainly have renowned similarities: their highly personalized style of governance and rhetoric, a populist worldview of grievances and victimization, Manichean divisions of society into friends and foes, a strategic war against the media and the deep state; they even share a pollster. Maybe the Lincoln Project’s biting ad scripts can rankle Netanyahu like they did his best friend Trump.
But would a rankled Netanyahu actually drive away party loyalists? Can the Lincoln Project brains prise traditional Likud voters, a notably stalwart base, away from one of the oldest parties in Israel’s political system? With new political lists cropping up almost daily, Likud is one of the few, along with the two Haredi parties and Meretz, that is an embedded part of their voters’ identity.
Gerstein says that giving traditional Republican voters "permission" to leave Trump and vote against Republican candidates who support him was one of the Lincoln Party's strongest contributions to the campaign. "It sent a message to Independents and people who lean Republican that they were not alone in their opposition to Trump, and it was okay to support Biden and other Democrats."
It’s easy to see the parallel strategy just by replacing the key words: “Soft Likud voters are not alone in their opposition to Netanyahu – it’s okay to support another party.” Based on my research and Likud’s fluctuations in public polls, up to one-third of Likud voters could potentially shift, potentially translating into 11 critical Knesset seats. These are the voters in play between Sa’ar and Netanyahu.
Finally, there’s one major political difference which is critical for the Lincoln squad’s mission.
Sa’ar’s campaign insiders note that his American gurus have a slightly easier task than they did at home: In the U.S., they had to persuade Republicans to vote for the Democratic candidate, crossing an aisle that in recent years has become a gulf. But in Israel, Sa’ar is only asking right-wing voters to change the leader at the top. They don’t have to cross an deological Rubicon to do it.
At the level of ideology, it’s not entirely clear whether Sa’ar will compete with Netanyahu from the center or tack to the right. In Israeli political optics, he looks like a secular technocrat from Tel Aviv (in fact Sa’ar has become somewhat observant over the years). In current video ads, he opposes religious coercion; he speaks carefully of reforming the judiciary rather than Israel’s far-right firebrand assault on the entire branch of governance.
But he is a hawk in the eyes of history: Sa’ar fought his party over the disengagement from Gaza; in 2011 as Education Minister he introduced "heritage tours" to Hebron for Israeli schools, and as Interior Minister he pushed legislation to crack down on asylum seekers in Israel that was rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court on human rights grounds.
In response, Sa’ar became an early advocate of legislation allowing the Knesset to override the Court – now a rallying cry for the far right. Just last May, he published an article Israel Hayom entitled "The High Court is Drunk on Power" making the case for such a law.
And the latest person to join Sa’ar’s party this week is David Elhayani, head of a settler organization who attacked the Trump plan from the right, calling it the "scam" of the Trump Mideast plan because it used the words "Palestinian state," barren as they were. Elhayani has also criticized Netanyahu for being insufficiently supportive of settlements.
Sa’ar has three options for ideological positioning: as the flag-bearer for a traditional, perhaps romanticized, pre-Netanyahu Likud, as a right-wing ideologue, or as the only serious challenger to Netanyahu on the same ideological ground.
If the election indeed comes down to a contest between Sa’ar and Netanyahu, whatever the political outcome, Israel will not change course as a country.
This is the core irony: With the Lincoln Project’s help, America elected a leadership representing a different worldview, different values, policies and vision for America – a full repudiation of Trump. If the same campaign gurus manage a stunning upset victory for Sa’ar, they will ensure that Israel remains the reddest state of all.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert. Twitter: @dahliasc