A tech millionaire runs an unapologetic, macho political campaign, calling for a new beginning, and claiming to speak truth to power, in a challenge to the establishment.
Sound familiar? That sentence could easily describe Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett or Labor leadership candidate Erel Margalit.
When Margalit released his first campaign video last month, the first wave of responses focused on the fact that he used some mild expletives; the clip’s tagline was “Give us back the country, damn it!” There was a lot of talk about how this was Donald Trump-esque vulgarity entering the Israeli political scene.
Then, the chattering classes began pointing out that Margalit had hired Moshe Klughaft, Bennett’s longtime strategist, and that the two campaigns seemed to be using the same language (minus the cursing in Bennett’s campaign).
Margalit’s slogan was “starting Labor again,” while Bennett ran in 2013 with the refrain “something new is beginning.” In the last election, Bennett called to “stop apologizing,” while Margalit says under his leadership, Labor will “stop whining and start roaring.” Both have called attention to their time as combat soldiers, and take a physically macho stance, too, staring straight into the camera while monologuing in their campaign launches. A Yediot Aharonot
analysis went as far to compare their activity on social media, and found a few identical phrases, such as telling new party members to “bring your friends” and expressing a faux modesty when they’re complimented.
And, of course, both candidates constantly called for supporters to join their party.
But the similarities between Bennett and Margalit go deeper than Klughaft and his staff’s choice of words in Facebook postings; it’s a nearly identical strategy and underlying message.
In 2012, then-political newbie Bennett took Bayit Yehudi by storm. Using social media – then mainly YouTube and Facebook, since twitter took a few more years to catch on in Israeli politics – Bennett brought thousands of new members into the party, while his opponents, both candidates entrenched in the party’s antediluvian establishment, were busy campaigning in synagogues. Bennett won the primary and grew his party from three to 12 seats in the 2013 election.
Margalit hired Klughaft in an attempt to galvanize a similar kind of energy in his campaign to unseat opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) as Labor’s chairman.
It’s true that Margalit is not a political newcomer, but this is only his third year in the Knesset. He has long been an outsider figure in Labor, unlike Herzog who was a Labor “prince” and whose father was an MK and president. Margalit is also unlike the presumptive contender for the party’s leadership, MK Shelly Yacimovich, who already was party leader and holds significant power in Labor’s labyrinthine institutions.
Bennett and Margalit’s hi-tech past is significant in this context. Not because tech is seen as cool in Israel, but because they were both successful – Bennett sold a cybersecurity company for millions and Margalit founded Jerusalem Venture Partners. They both ran for a leadership position with little to no political achievements under their belts. Nevertheless, they both had the confidence to point to their hi-tech achievements in saying they have the experience to lead. (The presumptive Republican nominee for the US presidency, Donald Trump, has used the same tactic.) Margalit is banking on his outsider status, and like Bennett, is working from the outside in, overturning the pyramid of support politicians used to need for a successful run.
Rather than appealing to Labor’s insiders in the hope of talking to the broader public in the general election, Margalit’s videos and Facebook posts are out there for all to see.
He has called on the general public to join Labor and support his campaign.
The plan seems to be working, at least as far as recruitment is concerned. A source in the Margalit campaign said Tuesday that they’ve signed up more Labor members than expected.
Bennett and Margalit both have the testosterone factor in their campaigns; they both act like tough guys and talk about their experiences in the army. But Bennett always smiles and Margalit is running angry. That is the difference between a smart campaign on the Right today and one on the Left. The difference is being on the winning side or on the one that hasn’t won an election since 1999.
On a very obvious level, Margalit’s anger contrasts with Herzog’s soft-spoken demeanor. Herzog’s nickname essentially means “cutie” and he recently gave a televised interview with a teddy bear behind him. Despite Herzog’s very real political acumen, he’s never been able to overcome his “Buji” side, his nerdy image.
But Margalit’s viral video rant is not about a bully picking on a nerd. Margalit tapped into something that has awakened the Israeli Left. He’s pointing out that the Left has become rudderless and does not have a clear leader people are willing to get behind. The last two times the Left won elections, Labor was led by former IDF chiefs of staff. Margalit never made it up the ranks in the IDF, but he’s clearly trying to convey power.
Margalit’s frustration is palpable in the video, and it feels so real, because it is real. The slogans may be Klughaft’s but the emotions are Margalit’s, a source in the campaign explained.
Margalit is a massively successful venture capitalist; he doesn’t need to be in politics, the source pointed out. He is putting himself out there because he’s frustrated with his party, his country and the leadership of both. He thinks he can do better.
That fiery temperament has become the lifeline of Margalit’s campaign.