Meretz Hires Obama E-team, as Knesset Campaigns Go Online

Parties seek to emulate Obama strategy; Likud invests half campaign budget in virtual electioneering,

The campaign for the upcoming Knesset election is moving online, as parties set aside major chunks of their campaign budgets for Web development and look to Barack Obama's successful model.

Meretz has even recruited two of Obama's leading campaign consultants, David Fenton and Tom Mazzei, who arrived in Israel last week.

Fenton and Mazzei "came to Israel at our invitation to advise us on this matter. We intend to wage a massive campaign on the Internet, and we see the social networking sites and blogs as a serious tool that we intend to use widely," said Meretz campaign headquarters chair MK Avshalom Vilan. The party is considering using most of its campaign budget online.

Likud is also investing major resources online - 50 percent of its budget will go to developing two Web sites, in Hebrew and in Russian. The Russian site will be launched on Thursday. Each Web site will have 10 paid employees.

About one-third of Kadima's budget is earmarked for an online campaign, which is being coordinated by strategist Eyal Arad. Kadima will also be launching a site in Russian. The party employs 20 people to maintain its Web site.

Targeting young voters

"Two things motivate us to use this tool," explains Vilan, of Meretz. "The first is the feeling that our potential [to garner voters] among the young population, which uses the Internet, will be greater. By definition, our voters are there - including all those who don't read newspapers and won't see ads on television."

A second reason, he adds, is because "in the past few years we've been seen as somewhat irrelevant and anachronistic, and we want to change that through the Internet."

Vilan says the Web content will use humor to attract potential voters, among other methods.

The two American consultants will advise Meretz in the coming months, but are not expected to play an active role in running the campaign.

In the United States, they recruited 5 million supporters to campaign for Obama, and raised millions of dollars in contributions.

Sani Sanilovich, who is coordinating the Likud Internet project, says the party wants to conduct an "Obama-style campaign." Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who has filmed a series of Web ads for the site, "very much believes in the medium. Once every two days we collect questions and proposals, and he answers them directly. He's also on Facebook," says Sanilovich.

Likud intends to use the sites to build social networks, host blogs for Netanyahu, Likud faction members and bureau staff, and bring in volunteers.

The site in Russian will also post updates and call for volunteers, but its bloggers will be Russian-speaking "celebrities," such as authors. Visitors to the Russian site will also be asked to help choose a campaign slogan in Russian.