Chicanery prevails in Israeli campaigns

How political image-makers helped propel Kadima to victory.

kadima logo 88 (photo credit: )
kadima logo 88
(photo credit: )
Even in model democracies, and in nations with stable, deeply rooted political traditions (like Britain, say), politics is at best a necessary evil. Society needs institutions that can enforce the law, and people choose "representatives" to manage these institutions. Representative democracy may produce far better governments than all its alternatives, but it still suffers from what economists call "the agency problem" - the fact that when you appoint someone to do something on your behalf, the great likelihood is that he will first serve his own interests, and only afterwards, yours. This is a problem that threatens even voluntary market transactions, where the incentives for satisfying the wishes of the agents' clients are high, and accountability can be enforced. It is a far more serious problem in the political marketplace, where "representatives" cannot be easily controlled by voters, because accountability is difficult to define or enforce. Israeli politics suffers from a very bad case of this agency problem, because government is all pervasive, and "has so much to offer." As Likud Party Chairman MK Binyamin Netanyahu pointed out in a recent Ari Shavit Haaretz interview, elements in our bureaucracy have been forming unholy alliances with a cabal of oligarchs, transferring to them precious resources and rights (mostly in land and its use, energy, communications etc.) that line their pockets, in return for various "compensations." The resulting growth in corruption is transforming our chronic political maladies into a scourge that undermines the basic health of our society. Corruption breeds on the growing cynicism that has been afflicting Israelis as a result of the demise of ideologies, Left and Right. On the Left, it was the death of socialism that bred either cynicism or an equally destructive leftist radicalism. On the Right it was the demise of the belief in Greater Israel that bred radicalism and cynicism. In both camps this radicalism and cynicism created a new type of politician, who sanctifies any means in pursuit of his political agenda or of his grab of power for personal aggrandizement and for riches. THESE POLITICIANS are served by a new type of political operative, "the professional political consultant" who has no qualms serving "ideologies" or politicians that he once strongly condemned and bitterly opposed when he only recently served an opposing ideology or politician. He also has no qualms bending the law or transgressing it, in fact doing anything "necessary" in order to win, even if it causes enormous damage to the political process and to democratic rule. A most revealing documentary, All the Campaigns Men, about several such prominent political operatives, their goals, their modus operandi, and what really motivates them, was recently aired on Channel 10. The operatives, assisting Labor, Likud but especially the winning Kadima, including Ariel Sharon's top confidant and counsel Reuven Adler, and his very able colleagues Eyal Arad and Lior Horev, felt apparently so invulnerable that they allowed the program's director, Anat Goren, free access to their secret strategy sessions. Goren caught them off guard, freely speaking their mind. The picture revealed is frightening. The documentary records the enormous influence these unelected political operatives have on their clients and through them on the most critical national policies. Sharon's first act every morning, after reading the press, was to call Adler and consult with him about his agenda, affirming Henry Kissinger's observation that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. Sharon called Adler several times daily. Adler proudly relates how he conceived the creation of Kadima, "designed" it as a brand-name product, sold it to a reluctant Sharon and then to an unaware public; how he helped transform Sharon from one of Israel's most hated politicians to a beloved grandfatherly elder statesman, making not only cosmetic changes in Sharon's image, but actually changing (apparently with assistance from Omri, Sharon's son) his most deeply held convictions and his policies. This without any public scrutiny or debate, and in total disregard of obligations Sharon undertook to get elected. Also in the program, Adler is seen boasting of his ability to totally control the media and mould public opinion anyway he wishes. Two weeks before Sharon was elected prime minister, charges surfaced that he received bribes through Cyril Kern. The charges threatened his election prospects. But as Adler proudly relates, he simply made them disappear. We can only guess by what means. Adler also boasts how he targeted Netanyahu as the campaign's chief object of hatred, and how the media cooperated with few reservations. IT IS, of course, a politician's right to change his mind, and to do so after consultations with people he feels close to and trusts. What is worrisome is that we are not only kept in the dark about the nature of such "consultations" and why they resulted in revolutionary policy shifts that profoundly affect our lives. We also have no information about who initiates these shifts, for what reason and what interests they represent (gambling in Jericho and Eilat, perhaps?). We do not know their qualifications as policy makers or what abilities they have besides their ability to sell almost anything, and to do so in the most aggressive and underhanded manner imaginable, with no constraints or consideration except a drive to win at all costs. The wish to win is natural, of course. But is the price we and Israeli democracy pay for such victories not very excessive? The writer is director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.