Analysis

Netanyahu’s Shadow Adviser and the Cache of Voter Phone Numbers That Could Come Back to Haunt Him

Netanyahu is expected to use the services of prominent pollster John McLaughin, who advised him in the 2015 campaign, now that the prime minister's former associate is now advising his right-wing competition

File photo: An election campaign poster with the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lies among ballot papers at his party's election headquarters, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.
Dan Balilty/AP

Prime Minister's Benjamin Netanyahu's election headquarters has adopted a lean approach with its targeted campaigns last week against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and against the media. The former meant to warn Mendelblit not to give in to pressure to indict the prime minister before the April 9 Knesset election, the latter to warn voters about journalists who presume to select the prime minister for them.

But, as this approach continues to prove itself, even if Netanyahu believes himself to be the best campaign manager in Israel, it’s hard to believe he’d make do with only one media adviser (Ofer Golan), two digital wizards (Jonathan Urich and Topaz Luk) and his son Yair to lead the entire campaign. That’s why it has been widely assumed in Likud and the PR industry that, as in the past, Netanyahu has hired a foreign “shadow” adviser.

Bradley Burston describes his visit to the West Bank with settler leader Daniella WeissHaaretz

The assumption is that he is using the services of U.S. pollster John McLaughlin, the strategic adviser who helped Netanyahu clinch the 2015 election. McLaughlin’s clients have included former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Britain’s Conservative Party and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Four years ago, McLaughlin was an anonymous figure who was mostly in direct contact with Netanyahu. That is expected to be the case this time around as well.

>> After attacking media and law enforcement, Netanyahu moves to next target | Analysis ■ Netanyahu bemoans 'unprecedented' campaign against him. Then launches unparalleled attack | Analysis

It’s possible that in taking a job as an adviser to the new right-wing party, Hayamin Hehadash, Shlomo Filber, who headed Netanyahu’s campaign headquarters in 2015, has made it clearer that Netanyahu needed more help. The fact that Filber, who knows all of the prime minister’s tricks from the inside, will be advising Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s new party to compete for right-wing votes might cause the prime minister some concern. Not only is this the same Filber who has turned state’s evidence against the prime minister in the Bezeq-Walla bribery case.

For example, Filber was there when, on Election Day in 2015, Netanyahu’s text messages were sent warning that Arab voters were streaming to the polls in droves.

Filber also knows the answer to the million-dollar question that sealed the election: the origin of the hundreds of thousands of telephone numbers of right-wing voters, voters who were warned that they had to return to Likud before the Arabs take over the country. Filber can help Bennett and Shaked replicate that success. Phone numbers that can be targeted with campaign messages are a valuable commodity at the moment.

Two and a half months before the election, Netanyahu continues to have his picture taken surrounded by soldiers, as if he himself were a career soldier. And for variety’s sake, he also is photographed — in his capacity as foreign minister — with foreign leaders.

Last Monday, at the dedication of the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport in southern Israel, Prime Minister and Defense Minister Netanyahu boasted about Israel Air Force’s attacks the night before on Iranian targets in Syria.

He spent much of the following day touring the Israel Aerospace Industries MLM Division plant, in the wake of a successful test launch that morning of the Arrow 3 missile defense system. Netanyahu spoke about Israel’s defensive and offensive capabilities, which he said were among the most advanced in the world. He warned that “Israel’s clenched fist will reach all those who seek our ill.”

The prime minister spent Wednesday touring the Shizafon base, where he climbed on tanks, watched a military display, spoke to the troops and ate cut-up vegetables with them. He also spoke about the Iranian threat and promised to confront it — and Syria.

In the election advertising law, there is a clause stating that “no use will be made of election advertising in the Israel Defense Forces in a manner that might create the impression that the IDF is identified with a party or with a candidate slate.”

But when it comes to the defense minister, no one can argue that all of these visits are not part of the job requirements. He has Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as defense minister in November, to thank for that.

Will Moshe Kahlon come home?

When members of the Likud Central Committee got a video clip last week of Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon saying he is the one who is looking after the country, it raised speculation that Kahlon might be on his way back to his former Likud party home. The other possibility is that Kahlon was simply trying to stick it to the prime minister on his own turf.

While Netanyahu was visiting the troops, Lieberman was wracking his brain figuring out how to lure Likud votes to his Yisrael Beiteinu party. In his Russian-language campaign for the 2015 election, Lieberman claimed that Netanyahu reminded him of the leadership of the Soviet Union when it was in its decline. In his current campaign in Russian, Lieberman has been promising voters that he will join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

He says the same in Hebrew, but adds that the prime minister is a leader who capitulates and becomes confused. In Russian, he talks more about housing and pensions. But both campaigns are designed to steal right-wing votes from Netanyahu.

Poll results reported last week by Army Radio indicated that if Netanyahu were to be indicted before the election, some Russian-speaking voters would shift their votes from Likud to Yisrael Beiteinu. Nevertheless, it’s doubtful that we will hear Lieberman, who has had his own brushes with the criminal justice system, declaring that he will not join a coalition led by Netanyahu under such circumstances.

In any event, there is another factor that Netanyahu can count on in this context. In the ultra-Orthodox parties, no one would dream of announcing that an indictment would mean that the parties steer clear of a Netanyahu-led coalition. On the contrary, Haredi MKs’ statements that a prime minister can remain in office even after being charged are a reminder that in this regard too, it would be better for the public to learn before the election whether it has been decided to indict the prime minister.

If Netanyahu gets his wish and manages to form a new coalition government before an indictment, we can expect to see all of his coalition partner pushing him to the wall by using the indictment card. Netanyahu will need their assurances that they will not break up the coalition if he is charged.

In exchange, they will demand everything they possibly can. We could see Netanyahu promise massive settlement construction to Hayamin Hehadash and unconditional draft exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students.