U.S. President Donald Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 15, 2017. \ Kevin Lamarque/ REUTERS
'Stop Giving the Bully Your Lunch Money'

An Obama Adviser's Tips for Netanyahu's Rivals

Scott Goodstein, a digital strategist who advised Obama during his first presidential campaign, talks about what astounds him about Israeli politics and how he would imbue its leftists with a winning spirit



Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m from a Jewish family and I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. I started out in the world of music and transitioned from there to politics. I was an external online director of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, in charge of social media and mobile communications. For Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016, I managed digital strategy and the company responsible for fundraising, online videos, advertising and social media.

In your résumé, you note that you specialize in helping political movements evolve and grow. How familiar are you with the situation in Israel?

Years ago I didn’t have enough perspective. I had to believe what my grandfather and grandmother – or The Jerusalem Post – told me. Thank God, we now have Google Translate, which allows me to read and follow things myself and understand the situation. I’m following events in Israel, now more than ever. I’m very concerned about the rise of the right everywhere in the world. I see the rise of ultra-right and conservative leaders: the strengthening of [Viktor] Orban in Hungary, the return of Marine Le Pen in France. In the United States we hadn’t seen anti-Semitism rising until very recently, and now it’s extremely worrying. I’m trying to understand how the left’s messages can be promoted and pushed. I want to understand how I can utilize the know-how I’ve acquired in order to advance the values that are important to me.

Did you also follow the last election in Israel?

Of course. You know, Benjamin Netanyahu really resembles Donald Trump.

I’d say it was the opposite: Netanyahu was the one who started with that style, that rhetoric.

I call it bullying. It’s true that Trump came after Bibi, but he took it to the next level, and now everyone wants to copy that style. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and I know that you don’t fight the bully by giving him your lunch money. That never worked in the Cleveland public school system. In the end, someone has to look the bully in the eye and punch him. Stand up for what they believe in. Obama and Sanders succeeded because they did just that. I don’t hear a politician like [Kahol Lavan leader Benny] Gantz telling me where he stands. What he’s fighting for. What excites him. How is he different from Netanyahu? What’s the plan? The man said nothing. I don’t know how you can beat the bully if you just stand there and watch him take your money.

Tomer Appelbaum

Let’s qualify things by noting that politics in Israel and the United States are utterly different; the public mood is something else completely.

Radically different. There are only two parties in the United States, which makes things easier. Still, if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that in a choice between an “original” Democrat and a “lite” Democrat, or between an “original” Republican and a “lite” Republican – people go for the original version.

What about the campaigns themselves? Can you play clean if your opponent plays dirty? That happened in both 2015 and 2019: Netanyahu played no-holds barred, and the opposition opted for statesmanship and lost.

That’s what will continue to happen in Israel, in the United States, everywhere in the world, if people go on behaving the same way, year after year. Times have changed, but instead of thinking how we readjust the campaigns, people use the same advisers, the same slogans, and ask the same irrelevant questions. People often come to me and say, “I want a blue-colored site,” because Obama had a blue website. Obama didn’t win because of his blue site. That’s just stupid causality.

But the campaign isn’t everything. You need someone standing behind it. How can you win if the message you convey to your adversary, who’s battering you relentlessly, is: “Thanks, I’ll take it from here,” as Benny Gantz said to Netanyahu? How can you evolve and grow around that?

Obviously, without Bernie and Bernie’s personality, the campaign wouldn’t have taken off. People esteem leadership. They appreciate vision. “I’ll take it from here” sounds like something distilled from a survey. As though some pollster told you, “Come out with a message that won’t actually bother anyone.” The feeling is that it’s not authentic. If you’re fighting him because you think he’s terrible, do you thank him? For what? When the same people run the same campaigns, you don’t get social involvement. When you give the bully power, he also develops and becomes more effective.

The thing is that the public also changes, when it’s exposed to extremist messages all the time. Will you be taking part in the 2020 presidential campaign?

Yes.

Let’s stay with the metaphor of the bully who steals the lunch money. Trump won in 2016, but I imagine that the voting public you’ll see in 2020 will be different. The systematic poisoning of the public consciousness causes cumulative damage. In our situation, in Israel, where it’s been going on for more than a decade, a terminology has developed that has been seared into the collective consciousness: the total identification between “left-wing” and “traitor,” for example. That’s how Netanyahu killed Gantz: by labeling him a leftist.

It’s a clever message, because it has a strong emotional component.

Again, those messages work better than the left’s messages. They catch on. In Israel, leftist is traitor. In Hungary, refugee is terrorist.

Conservatives bombard us with messages like that; they’re better at it. Populists do it better. Nationalists do it better. That’s what’s really scary. The question is how we can use emotions – fear, love, anger – for our benefit? “Leftist” is a dirty word in Israel? Okay. We’re leftists? Why shouldn’t we stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a leftist, and this leftist is standing up for what he believes. This leftist is talking back. This leftist wants better education for our children.” Who, exactly, doesn’t accept that? Or, in our case, in the United States: “This leftist wants to know why other countries have an orderly health-care program, whereas here it doesn’t really work.” They won’t make do with an answer like, “It’s not American.” They’ll stand up for their convictions and demand to know what’s not American about wanting better education, in the country that purports to be the best in the world. The left has to learn how to give as good as it gets, and immediately. To grab the narrative and turn it around at the same time.

That’s not happening in Israel. Netanyahu used the oldest methods in the books. He spread rumors – about Gantz’s sanity, about his phone, which was supposedly hacked by the Iranians. They weren’t able to rebut it.

Until a few years ago, stories like that could be stretched out for a few days and dominate the newscasts. Today you can respond in real time. When Clint Eastwood ridiculed Obama at the Republican convention [in 2012], when he pointed to an empty chair and said, “So, I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here.” What did Obama do? He tweeted a photo of himself sitting on a chair in the Oval Office. That was that. Instead of that becoming a news item and generating an orgy of responses, the story ended at that same moment. People thought it was funny, and Obama was saying, in his way: “The story is over. There’s no use asking me dumb questions. He said the chair is empty and I said I’m sitting in the fucking chair.”

Gantz is an Israeli general. He doesn’t need me to tell him that he has to be the initiator and not the responder. If the adversary bombards you with rumors, you have to be prepared. Preempt him. Tell the public: “They’re going to say this or that about me.” Create a website that counts the number of rumors and shows how many people were exposed to them, and make fun of that. Israel has the world’s greatest and best brains for doing digital. I simply can’t understand why, when it comes to politics, no one thinks fast and creatively and kills those stories before they even start. Where’s the instant response that slams the door in the face of all that nonsense? People tell me things like, “You can’t do that kind of thing in Israel.” Why not? You know, there was one episode in the past election that absolutely astounded me.

There were so many, and each one was astounding in its own distinctive way.

I teach the subject of fake news and combating fake news all over the world. And then, one morning, an investigative report is published in the United States about how Netanyahu used bots and that Facebook blocked users that are bots. The story was in every newscast, worldwide. Some countries announced that they intended to fine Facebook. Where was the left’s rapid response?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The rapid response came from Netanyahu. By the way, there actually was a problem with the investigation: Real users were accused of being bots.

I saw what he did and I buried my head in my hands. It was a moment like in the movies, when the bully enters the cafeteria and starts to shout and rampage, and no one does anything. Well, if Netanyahu found one who was real, does that mean it’s all nonsense?

No, but it means he seized control of the story, and that was the end of it. That’s the method.

Netanyahu was caught in an insane lie there.

Totally routine around here.

I saw it as a missed opportunity. The story could have been attacked from so many directions. There was a clear truth. There were reports in newspapers that Facebook decided to shut down users, and he just stood there and lied. I’d have fought that story. I’d have tried to shame him for the lie. For behaving like a whining baby. Where’s the quick response from the left in Israel, when the other side is consistently belittling them and their motivations and their messages? And when I say “quick response,” I don’t mean a press release. Because, as far as I can see, one of the left’s methods is to issue communiques. What’s that about?

We lost the internet. The social networks are called social networks because they deal with society. I’m astonished to see politicians and NGOs in Israel photographing their press releases and disseminating them as tweets. “Twitter has a limit on the number of characters, but no, that’s not good enough for me! I want people to read all of my complex thinking.”

Crass intervention

The public has no patience for those messages, and this, too, works in the favor of leaders who spout hatred and fear. Who have no inhibitions. They aim straight for the emotions.

Emotions are more important than truth. Marketing experts have been explaining that for decades, but left-wing politicians don’t want to listen. When the president of the United States screams and gets angry and has a tantrum like a baby, the media just covers his outbursts instead of asking the tough questions. Let’s learn from that, instead of occupying ourselves with questions like what’s proper and what’s alright. No one has ever voted for the smartest guy in the room, the one with the most complex arguments. Trump does what he wants because no one stands up to him, so he just keeps getting more extreme. He tweeted about the formation of the coalition in Israel? I can’t think of any American president who intervened so crassly and directly in the politics of another country. It’s unprecedented, and it didn’t happen overnight – it happened because of the restrained reactions to ever more unacceptable and non-normative actions. That escalation will at some stage reach a point where people will get fed up with it.

I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I don’t think Israel has to try to reach the boiling point, because unlike the United States, it’s coping with real threats to its security and integrity, and it can’t afford unnecessary domestic political tensions on top of that.

The question is the way you reach the boiling point. When it happens gradually – like the story about the frog in the pot of boiling water – it passes by silently. Do you know what happens when the bully steals the lunch money of all the kids for more than 10 years?

He ends up with a serious sum.

He changes from being a bully to being a kid who’s gotten the money from others, because that’s how it is. The option of fighting back no longer exists. The kids don’t believe they’ll ever defeat him. He becomes a mythic figure.

Despair – that’s exactly what the bully wants. For the other side to believe they will never win. For them to be afraid to even step onto the field. For them to stop trying. What’s the opposite of that? Motivation. Empowerment. How you succeed in achieving engagement, in energizing the public. I don’t think the despair you describe is justified. Even in countries where people can be jailed for their opinions, there are always those who resist. You need to understand how to arouse motivation in people. If for years nothing has been done to arouse the public and infuse it with motivation, why does anyone expect them to wake up on Election Day?

You have to work on it.

The communication of politicians on the left with the voter is one-directional and not continuous. Why? People want to be talked to. They want their attention grabbed. To be motivated. If you don’t communicate with your public and don’t offer them any narrative – how do you expect that public to cooperate? In the United States there are marches and rallies against Trump. I understand that this happens in Israel, too. A large crowd shows up for a demonstration. Excellent. Terrific. What happens the next day? The day after that? Tens of thousands of people came out to demonstrate. How about sitting with a few of them in a café and trying to work out how to preserve the momentum, and see what they’re ready to do? If everyone feels despair, if everyone feels beaten – where’s the sense of urgency?

It’s replaced by apathy.

The public becomes apathetic because for years it was intimidated and enfeebled. How do you overcome that? Educate your voters. Tell the public: “They’re going to scare you. They’re going to curse you. That’s what they want to achieve.” And then, at the moment of truth, it will have a much smaller effect. When Trump came into power, he began attacking African Americans, the LGBT community, the unions. He attacked on all fronts. Inundating the public – that’s exactly what they want. We can’t cope with so many scattered messages. We need to understand that the struggle is the good guys against the bad guys, and to unite, to understand how it’s possible to work together – because until that happens, the bad guys will go on stealing our money. The internet is an amazing tool for this. What are the things the left is good at? Culture. Humor. Music. Writing. Those things are used to portray us as ridiculous, disconnected, liberal artists – but we can turn that around to our benefit.

Meged Gozani

Before you launch a volley of funny, authentic messages, you need someone who will be ready to listen to them. You know, when a Komodo dragon bites its victim, the bite is lethal but the victim doesn’t die at once. It takes time for the venom to spread throughout the body. I think we’re seeing a similar process in Israel: Netanyahu’s venom is trickling down and paralyzing one system after another.

One of the countries I work with is Ukraine. There, oligarchs have effectively been leading the country for the past five years. The amount of fake news and smokescreens is almost beyond belief. So what did some people do? They created a site called “Enough fake news.” A community sprang up, people united around the idea. I’m constantly being told that Netanyahu is a tyrant and that everyone is afraid of him. Israel has coped with bigger challenges than political problems or a leader of this or that kind. In any event, it’s certainly not a reason not to try.

Almost everyone in Israel has a smartphone. Society here is divided – but it’s not large. It’s so easy to reach people. It’s not hundreds of millions of people or hundreds of millions of dollars. You have one enemy. How do you find creative ways to forge cooperation against him? What’s the difference, if any, between Meretz and Labor? Why not work with the Arabs, instead of making declarations about who you’re willing and unwilling to work with?

When you try to take action against someone who uses totalitarian methods, you have to close ranks in the opposing camp. Israel is not a totalitarian state. In the meantime, at least. So fight back. In contrast to every other period in history, you can put a few people in a room, give them a little money and come up with a good message that will reach the masses. Until it becomes impossible to do that, and until the internet is shut down here, as happened in Tahrir [Square, in Cairo] – it’s possible want to win and go for it with everything you’ve got.

Scott Goodstein was visiting Israel as a guest of the Berl Katznelson Foundation.

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