Israeli advertising entrepreneur Nimrod Dweck was no stranger to marketing when he started Victory 2015 (V15), a campaign to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the elections March 17.
Yet Dweck turned elsewhere for what he called invaluable advice: American political consultant Jeremy Bird, who was national field director in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
Bird’s office “sent an Excel sheet with a graph, showing how many people you need to go door to door, and how many doors you need to knock on every shift, and how many pledges you need to collect,” said Dweck, who recruited 10,000 volunteers to canvass homes in his anti-Netanyahu campaign “I was shocked. You can really calculate everything ... and we started doing all the operation according to those numbers.”
Dweck was not the only person in Israel impressed with Bird’s work. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Likud party filed a motion to have a court proclaim V15’s operation illegal, claiming its backing by American donors violates Israel’s campaign-finance rules. Previous attempts to outlaw V15 and its partner organization, OneVoice, have failed because the movement isn’t affiliated with any party.
For decades American advisers have spoken into the ears of Israeli politicians of every persuasion, contributing skills in polling, focus groups, research and viral social media to their campaigns, and this year is no different, with a cadre of consultants bringing big data analysis and social media strategy to the Israeli campaign trail.
But this time, their work has garnered more attention than usual because of strained U.S.-Israel relations, with Republicans seemingly firmly tied to Netanyahu while his rivals turn to the Obama camp for assistance.
Netanyahu and his Likud allies have accused Obama of sending Bird to work for the prime minister’s opponents, a charge that Obama supporters in the U.S. call baseless. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, even pointed to a $233,500 grant that OneVoice received from the State Department as further evidence of Obama’s blessing for the anti-Netanyahu campaign; State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the grant ended last November, a month before Israeli elections were called.
V15 isn’t the only controversy. Likud hired a 26-year-old Republican strategist, Vincent Harris, who’d leveraged digital campaigning to get Cruz elected in 2012. Harris and Likud denied reports that Cruz had sent Harris to Israel.
Since Harris began working for Netanyahu, the prime minister has opened an Instagram account, issued a torrent of captivating short videos – including one suggesting liberal Israelis would surrender to the Islamic State – and tweeted his insistence on speaking against a deal with Iran in Congress. Harris enthusiastically amplified these moves on Twitter, peppering his feed with photos of Netanyahu and quotes from Psalms (“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may they be secure who love you!”).
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University, said this year’s elections in Israel had been riven by American partisanship.
One trigger was the invitation that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, extended to Netanyahu to speak in March before Congress about his opposition to Obama administration policy toward Iran.
In Israel, Netanyahu’s critics said his planned speech was bald-faced electioneering. In the U.S., some Democratic lawmakers have announced they’ll skip it. The liberal American Jewish group J Street launched a campaign titled “Bibi doesn’t speak for me” to urge Congress to postpone Netanyahu’s appearance until after the elections.
“This is exceptional,” Gilboa said. “American consultants started coming here 25 years ago, but ... never before have American-Israeli relations been an election issue.”
In other years, American consultants have simply lent prestige and experience to Israeli campaigns. This year, their affiliations in the United States have become news.
In addition to Harris, Likud has hired John McLaughlin, a consultant who worked on its 2013 election campaign and represents six Republican U.S. senators and 13 state Republican parties among a long list of GOP interests. Another Republican powerhouse, Arthur Finkelstein, has signed on to advise Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home party.
On the left, the Labor-led Zionist Camp alliance hired pollster Stanley Greenberg and consultant Paul Begala, two well-known Democratic consultants.
In the center, consultant Mark Mellman returned to work with former Finance Minister Yair Lapid after receiving an industry award for his work in Israel’s 2013 elections, when Lapid’s Yesh Atid party netted 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament.
Mellman, whose clients have included Al Gore and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as well as winning presidential candidates in Colombia and South Africa, said the key to increasing Lapid’s votes in 2013 was aggressive, low-cost campaigning on social media and in person.
“Lapid went around for a year or two doing home meetings with people,” Mellman said. “That’s a technique used in America. It was not something widely used in Israel.”
Despite the large number of consultants, Israeli and American elections have significant differences. U.S. elections are basically between two candidates. Negative campaigns against candidates from one party usually result in votes for the candidate from the other party. Not so in Israel, where voters choose from more than a dozen parties, and negative campaigning may end up sending votes in many directions.
Pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, who’s worked on campaigns in Israel and abroad since 1999, said Israelis voted first through the prism of security, and only later did they pick the candidates who appealed to their ideas about the economy and social welfare.
“In America the major issues are economic, but there are also other wedge issues, like gun control and abortion,” she said. “We have important social and economic issues here, but they tend to be not as enduring or divisive as security or conflict-related themes.”
Israelis also run more rushed, haphazard campaigns than their American counterparts. The prime minister is elected for a four-year term, but that term can be cut short if Parliament decides to call early elections, which happens frequently.
American influence is felt in ways other than campaigning. Israel’s largest newspaper, the free daily Israel Hayom, is funded by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Critics say the newspaper is a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.
Americans also are candidates. Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who was born in New York and graduated from Princeton University, is fourth on the Kulanu slate, which aims to reduce economic inequality in Israel. Dov Lipman, who hails from Silver Spring, Md., is seeking re-election as a member of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Lipman and Oren have forfeited their U.S. passports to work as public servants in Israel.
One group that doesn’t seem to have an American consultant is the Joint List slate of Arab parties running for Parliament seats. The Joint List aims to raise Arab voter turnout and counter what it claims is a rising tide of racism in Israel.
“We are trying to focus on issues,” said Reut Mor, a Joint List spokeswoman. She scoffed at the election campaign the Likud is running. “It feels like Likud isn’t even bothering to put up a platform,” she said. “They are just trying to be cool.”