A danger to Israeli democracy

More on how political image-makers helped propel Kadima to victory.

The rebroadcast of Anat Goren's (award deserving) Channel 10 documentary All the Campaign's Men should intensify concern about Israeli democracy. The film documents how several top politicians and campaign managers trample basic standards of decency in their zeal to win, and how they promote a culture of manipulation, distortion and even lying. By doing so, they destroy the proper functioning of government and make more and more Israelis recoil from politics and refuse to vote. Democracy is in crisis everywhere, as the public realizes how politicians have been using the proceeds of high taxes and government control of the economy to shower privileges on their supporters. A fierce competition for government favors fractures and radicalizes politics and accelerates the corruption of power. In formerly socialist Israel, as in Russia and its former satellites, the crisis of politics is more intense and widespread, because government control of the economy was not transferred to markets but to former bureaucrats and their allies in the oligarchy, through fake privatization and the sale of assets to cronies. The private monopolies they perpetuate inhibit competition and efficiency, thus creating the impoverishment that invites further government domination through an extensive welfare system. Excessive government control corrupts not only the economy but politics as well. Anat Goren's film illustrates how the electoral system is manipulated by arrogant and irresponsible power brokers who use merchandising techniques to mislead the public and gain control for their clients. The two prominent figures portrayed in Goren's film are Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad, reputed to be the country's best campaign managers, who have parlayed their talents and connections into extremely lucrative PR empires. Adler's firm started nine years ago. It soon became prime minister Ariel Sharon's second home. Sharon did not make a political move without Adler's advice. After Sharon became prime minister, Goren states, Adler's firm increased its billing tenfold, with many government or big business accounts. Arad's career followed a similar trajectory. Sharon's dependency made Adler so self-confident that he boasts how he and Arad played a crucial role in convincing a skeptical Sharon to make the bold break from Likud and establish Kadima. He also does not hesitate to disclose how he manipulates the media, when he does not control it: "I start with this canard about who said about whom… a small gag to start it off. [I feed the journalists] a bit of herring, an itsy bitsy... [like] on a toothpick, wipe their lips and go on. Boys, do not underrate this, this is politics," Adler says on camera, smiling. CAMPAIGNS, Adler avers, should not be about issues. "The issue will not be under any circumstances the economy. We are not going to be dragged into this field, not going to talk about this nonsense…" "We wanted to make everything vague," Eyal Arad goes on to explain, "we wanted to present everything as 'Sharon's way,' to speak in codes… But what holds [people with my convictions] in Kadima is not 'Sharon's way' but a hatred for Bibi." Campaigns should be negative with no holds barred. Adler: "I told him [Sharon], 'You will be the most hated person… we must make Peretz pathetic, but the first thing is to stick it to Bibi…'" And the usually affable Arad continues: "We must tear Bibi apart… I want to undo him, totally. He bleeds in the water. What does a shark do when someone bleeds? He attacks, he kills! So let's kill him, put our foot here [pointing to his throat] and squash… It has become a national sport now… Bibi is hated, so it's our opportunity to tear apart the you know what of his mother's mama." One can only guess what a dressing down an Arad client would get if he indulged in such emotionalism. ALL THIS bravado, and the constant use of obscenities is another depressing indication of how adolescent culture is coming to dominate Israeli society. It makes these operators reckless and destructive, determined to win no matter at what cost. This overwhelming and really pathetic need to appear young and with it - so obvious from the way they dress - and their know-it-all cynical demeanor is what made them so successful among the young. It was also their undoing. For despite their skills, despite their ruthless use of power ("Just wipe her off," Arad instructs, referring to a non-cooperative journalist) and their control of the media, their campaign was a miserable failure. Kadima, to which polls first gave a whopping 42 mandates ended up with only 28. Had the elections been held a few weeks later, the public's disenchantment with its campaign would likely have grown and its electoral slide would probably continue. Nevertheless, the damage to the Israeli body politic caused by these ruthless operators is immense. They have inflamed political competition to such a high pitch that it totally consumes the time and energy of our leaders and precludes a process of orderly planning for momentous decisions of great strategic import, as former National Security Council head Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland recently confirmed. It may be the reason why the recent disengagement from Gaza is progressively becoming an unmitigated catastrophe. What a heavy price to pay for the services of these manipulators who are basically so insecure that each of them employs a private clairvoyant, their "witch" as they refer to them. What a way to run a country. The writer is director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.