I’ve been personally involved in four presidential elections over the years. Recently, we’ve repeatedly heard the phrase: “We’ve never experienced a presidential election like this one.” This statement is not based on reality, and the journalists who’ve chosen to write these words either have an extremely short memory or are just plain ignorant.
Each election has its own character, and always will. Naturally, each candidate creates his or her own dynamic and the more open the media is, the more competitive the election becomes. I haven’t encountered a single personal slur against a competitor in the current campaign, and neither did I see such behavior in previous elections. There is absolutely no factual basis for any of the comments made in ridicule of the candidates. Each and every one has a long history of public service – some in academia and others at the Supreme Court.
One candidate served in the past as acting president and as Knesset speaker. Another served as a minister in a number of ministries and as deputy mayor. One candidate was a successful mayor. These are the men and women who are not fit to become Israel’s next president? Since when have experience in the public sector, an understanding of Israeli politics and experience with the diverse groups that make up our heterogeneous society become obstacles to running for the top public office? In 1993, while I was the spokesman for the Labor party under then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, elections for a new president to replace Chaim Herzog were held. Since at the time the Labor party held 44 seats in the Knesset the most likely outcome was that the candidate being backed by Labor would be elected. Three candidates participated in the race: Ezer Weizman, Arieh “Luba” Eliav and Shlomo Hillel. The Peres camp was backing Weizman and Rabin was backing Hillel. Eliav, whom Rabin also supported, ran as an independent. When the Labor party gathered to pick which candidate they would put forward, Weizman triumphed over the Rabin-backed choices.
I actively participated in Weizman’s campaign and I must tell you that much of the tension and emotion that surrounded the Peres-Rabin conflict in those days was channeled into the presidential race. Attempts were made to torpedo opponents, information was leaked to the media and other shameful actions that characterize slander campaigns around the world were carried out. As we all know, Weizman won in the end and went on to beat Dov Shilansky in the vote in the Knesset.
Weizman’s re-election campaign for a second term as president in 1998 (during which I served as communications consultant to the Labor party, led by Ehud Barak from the opposition) broke all records with regard to how presidential elections were conducted.
For the first time in the history of Israel, the Likud was backing a candidate – Shaul Amor – against an incumbent president. In this case, too, there were questions about the candidates’ health and overall it was a very negative campaign.
Weizman won again and served a second term that ended prematurely following exposure of the incident in which Weizman had received substantial sums of money from millionaire friend Edouard Seroussi.
State leaders did learn one lesson from this campaign, however, and the basic law regarding the president was changed so that presidents could serve single, seven-year terms instead of multiple four-year terms.
Everyone remembers the results of the race between Shimon Peres and Moshe Katzav in the year 2000, but not the details of the campaign. Everyone’s forgotten how Yediot Aharonot dug out from its archive and rehashed the tragic story about the military accident Peres’s son had been involved in 20 years previously.
This was not the first time the nasty trick of publishing irrelevant information with the sole goal of harming a candidate had been used, either.
Since I was working on the Peres campaign, I remember well the feeling of helplessness we experienced that Friday.
All of a sudden it felt like we were tilting at windmills.
Then, too, people said “we’ve never seen a campaign like this before.” After the final election results were publicized, we realized that a huge number of Knesset members from the Labor party and the One Israel list had voted for Katzav, the opposition candidate. There were countless stories about votes being bought, and extortion.
I was heavily involved in the 2007 elections as Peres’s closest political adviser and I learned then a lesson regarding the election of the president of Israel that is still relevant today: there never was – nor will there ever be – a substitute for personal contact with each and every Knesset member. Every discussion a candidate has with voters makes a difference. Each and every attempt to persuade Knesset members to vote a certain way, making them feel like their single vote will be the decisive factor, is what creates winners.
Each MK is not one of 120, but unique and special. It’s hard, repetitive work doing this, and not always the most pleasant way to spend your time. Sometimes the MKs got annoyed by the incessant nagging, but in the end these discussions were the deciding factor when it came time to vote.
I could write here that my involvement in the campaign was what helped Peres win the election. But that is simply not true. Were my brilliant media briefings what brought him success? No. Did my intense involvement within the Labor party that was intended to make the campaign harder for the candidate being backed by Labor and running against Peres have a dramatic effect? No. I could boast about a number of ways that my personal involvement could have made a difference, but the truth is actually very simple: Peres won on his own merit alone.
He relied on his untarnished reputation, his high standing in the community and his decades of outstanding achievement in the public sector (although this wasn’t enough to get him elected when he ran in 2000 against Katzav). It was Peres’s personal discussions with each and every MK that carried him to a landslide victory.
In the election for president , personal contact with each of the 120 members of Knesset is what makes or breaks an election. No other factor even comes close.
So, if you’re trying to predict who’s going to be elected the next president of Israel, there’s no need to read the newspaper headlines or scramble after the latest poll results. All you have to do is find out which candidate has taken the time to meet with each and every MK. Not which candidate has sent out press releases describing their desires, but which one has actually sat down one-on-one with each MK. Which candidate has not stopped trying to garner votes for even one second? Which one didn’t trust their campaign headquarters or senior managers and instead went him or herself from voter to voter? The candidate that worked the most tirelessly will be chosen as the next president of the State of Israel.
The writer is a senior strategic adviser to President Shimon Peres.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.