5 rules for winning an Israeli election - opinion

This changes the rules somewhat, but the basic principles of how to win an election in Israel are similar to those around the world.

MOCK GRAVESTONES mark a protest in Tel Aviv two weeks ago calling for left-wing and centrist parties to unite ahead of the elections. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
MOCK GRAVESTONES mark a protest in Tel Aviv two weeks ago calling for left-wing and centrist parties to unite ahead of the elections.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Israeli election campaigns are in some ways very similar to any campaign season around the world, and in other ways very different. The most marked way Israel is very different is in its political system, where it has a pretty extreme version of proportional representation. While the system was vital at the beginning of the state, to bring in as many different groups into the legislature as possible, and provide something close to maximum representation, the very same system is now at the root of our political paralysis and increasing lack of governability.
Nevertheless, to “win” in such a system, a party or leader does not have to ensure the majority of votes, or even anything close to it, but in essence become the largest party in the larger bloc, or the bloc of parties that could potentially sit in the same coalition.
This changes the rules somewhat, but the basic principles of how to win an election in Israel are similar to those around the world. Here are five guiding principles about how to win an election:
1. Control the agenda – There is an important principle in any election or public relations campaign: “If you are responding, you are losing.” Any military tactician will tell you that historically, the military force that chooses the field of battle has a far greater chance of winning. So it is with an election campaign. The person or party who defines the election issues and agenda will stand a far greater chance of winning. Here, incumbency has a massive advantage as it ensures the levers of power can be utilized during the campaign, whether through press conferences, which the media will be instructed to cover, the dolling out of budgets or the enacting of hastily devised populist policies.
2. Distract and deflect – The corollary of the principle above. An example of this is Likud, which has been very good at selling the public the idea that the “justice system” is a major campaign issue, not perhaps coincidentally ever since the investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began in earnest. However, in the 12 years since Likud have been the ruling party, there has only been one Justice Minister from the Likud Party, and that was for less than a year, amply demonstrating for all of its bluster, it is not high on their agenda of must-hold portfolios during subsequent coalition negotiations.
3. Hit a voter in the heart or wallet, or preferably both – It is vital that the voter understand how they will personally benefit from their vote. While in many parts of the world economics is key, in Israel there are very few substantive differences between the economic worldviews of any of the major parties. Issues of GDP, bond credit ratings, and macroeconomic indicators in general do not win elections. The people must feel it in their wallets. Every now and again, a party could rise resting on the hope of economic reform that will be felt directly in our wallets. This happened with Kulanu, which won an impressive 10 Knesset seats in 2015 almost solely on its leader Moshe Kahlon’s “Cellular Revolution,” which saved every Israeli thousands of shekels on their cellphone bills. However, this was an outlier, and usually Israeli politicians will try and hit our hearts with issues like patriotism, fear of something or someone, or the feeling that only they are honest, show leadership qualities or can change some theoretical paradigm.
4. Do not lose your base – This is a vital principle in every campaign. While the goal is always to try and expand one’s support, if it comes at the cost of the base, the party or leader will fail. This partly explains why Yamina/New Right does not do as well in the actual elections as it does in the polls, sometimes spectacularly so, as in the failure to pass the electoral threshold during the April 2019 elections. The party is constantly trying to find new audiences, whether it is the traditional Sephardi vote, during the 2015 elections, which backfired, or the more centrist vote. New audiences may well like some of the policies or messaging in the run up to elections and indicate this in response to pollsters’ questions, but during the latter stages of a campaign when the issues are more focused, many will return to their more traditional positions and parties, while the base, which might not have been properly maintained, will abandon them for a party which speaks more consistently toward their traditional values and issues.
5. Get out the vote (GOTV) – Elections are frequently won by narrow margins, especially in Israel with its convoluted coalition system. We have seen governments unable to be formed because of one singular Knesset seat. Thus, every single vote matters. This is why a disproportionate amount of every election arsenal is kept for the final crucial day. While research has shown that most people have made up their mind around two weeks before elections, it can be won or lost during the hours when the polling booths are open. Some parties place a lot of emphasis on their party infrastructure, especially if they have many regional offices around the country that can physically work on getting their supporters to the booths. However, the most effective way of GOTV is to ensure those who might be inclined not to vote or have moved toward an opponent are brought back into line with a devastating and alarmist message that “demands” adherence. In Israel, this has best been utilized by Netanyahu’s “gevalt” tactic, whose most famous example was his “Arabs are rushing to the polls” in the final hours of the 2015 elections. This was extremely effective, designed many weeks in advance during intensive strategy meetings.
Election campaigns are very extensive, detailed and expensive exercises, with polls undertaken before every step. Over the next few weeks, Israelis will be bombarded with variants of these tactics and their attendant messaging. This is essentially how the elections will be won, and lost.
The writer is an international campaign strategist, having helped his clients win campaigns on four continents, and is also a former senior Israeli government adviser.