A Netanyahu Campaign Billboard for the 2015 Election

One year ago, Israeli voters reelected Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, backed by a new coalition from the hardest of the hard right, with the antidemocratic Ayelet Shaked at Justice, Naftali Bennett politicizing the Education Ministry, and Tzipi Hotovely, of “This land is ours, all of it is ours” fame, heading the day-to-day operations of the Foreign Ministry. How did the Israeli left lose so badly? And is there any hope now?

Yes, there is. Israeli democracy is in grave danger but it is not dead. We do not have to resign ourselves to a future that leads inexorably to a bloodbath in the Middle East. But we are close, and if we want to avoid that fate, Israeli politics must change. In this article, I write about one big opportunity to create that change, albeit at this time an opportunity mainly for political professionals to act. In future articles, I will share other, very specific ideas for individuals of conscience to become part of the solution.

If anyone’s going to change Israel’s trajectory right now, it will be Israeli voters. And the Israeli political situation certainly looks bleak. However, progressives do not need to buy hook, line and sinker into the propaganda of Netanyahu’s so-called landslide victory in 2015. Netanyahu eked out a 61-seat coalition, the thinnest possible margin in the 120-seat Knesset, on the very last legally allowable day before new elections would have had to be called. That’s not a landslide in my political experience. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition rules with an iron fist, attacking democracy and installing ethnocracy and theocracy wherever possible. But they rule from a glass throne. A coalition with the thinnest allowable margin cobbled together on the last allowable day is a politically vulnerable coalition. The key is finding the right tools to break the right-wing status quo.

In this article, I argue that the Israeli left must improve its overall operational competence, and it must start now. Americans can and must help.

My ideas here are opposed to the conventional wisdom. In a poisoned political environment where one of the worst insults on the Israeli left is to be called an optimist, I must clarify that I speak not out of optimism, but out of years of senior political operational experience with the Democratic Party. I’m fortunate to be writing today in Tikkun, which has always made an editorial point of opposing the negativity of “realism,” where “realism” is taken to mean that we ought to give up on our dreams. But facts are facts, and I am talking about facts here.

When I see the Israeli right wing running highly disciplined, operationally effective campaigns while the left is demoralized, chaotic and incompetent, and I see the right wing still only able to muster 61 seats while polls still show decisive majorities of Israelis and Palestinians supporting the two-state solution, the fact is that with better operations and more message discipline, the left could emerge next time as the victorious side with 61 or 62 seats.

Pessimists have grown a little too comfortable assuming that anyone who has a new idea must be naïve. The ideas I offer here are not new, except in the context of the Israeli left. In America, they are thoroughly familiar ideas, basic points of political tactics. As far as I can tell, they are also thoroughly familiar to the Israeli right wing, and they explain the right wing’s success over an operationally incompetent Israeli left. Israeli leftists are now in a funk; after 20 years of defeat after defeat, I would be too. They don’t always want to hear reasons for hope. But sometimes friends need friends to tell them to snap out of it, with ideas that are more constructive than giving up.

The conversation has already grown more constructive. We opened 2016 with Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev and The Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner trading blame. Their exchange offered more heat than light, but as I wrote at the time in these pages, I think blew open communication pathways between the Israeli left and American Jewish left that had been blocked. In this article, I offer constructive political ideas based on my own experience in political operations leadership.

Before I do, there are two very large elephants in the room. The first is political strategy. In this article, I focus exclusively on tactics. Because political strategy cannot exist in a state of flailing panic, it is probably too much to ask from the Israeli left right now. For example, opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s unilateral separation proposal (I think he wants to build a big wall; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me) strikes me as just so much more flailing from a politician noted for his lack of strategic vision. Herzog tries to outdo Netanyahu on fomenting fear of Arabs, instead of offering any leadership that might bring about credible progress toward peace. But even for Herzog’s lack of either charisma or vision, and even though Herzog’s Zionist Union party ran the very worst campaign in 2015 that I have ever witnessed in all my years in politics – about which I’ll say more below – he and other opposition forces still managed to keep Netanyahu to the thinnest of possible victory margins. At least as bad a strategic problem lies in the Israeli left’s fragmentation, which makes it difficult to have any message clarity in addition to presenting operational challenges, but again, even so, the results of the election were as close as they could legally have been. A right wing with significant advantages won only 61 seats against a fragmented left suffering severe disadvantages. As disappointing as the 2015 loss was, it is not such a bad place to hit rock bottom.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly recommend having a political strategy. But my read on the 2015 election is that even without one, better operations could have put Herzog and the Zionist Union over the top. Let me say that again: despite his severe shortcomings as a leader as opposed to Netanyahu’s advantages and gifts, Isaac Herzog almost became Israel’s prime minister. His campaign fell short by two seats, or 1.7%, which is well within the 5%-6% margin that, based on my experience, operational competence in the field can sway electoral results. I say this with some trepidation, not wanting to be seen validating the rudderless status quo of the Israeli left, but needing to call it as I see it based on significant political experience. The Israeli left, in as sad a state as it is, could have succeeded in 2015 had it only had greater operational competence. I believe that. It makes sense, therefore, to focus on operations. Operational competence on the left can change the whole game.

The second huge elephant in the room is the elephant of the Republican Party. The Republicans and the Likud are so close that the Likud has sent a lifelong Republican political operative, Ron Dermer, back to America as Israel’s ambassador. The disastrous results were on display a year ago, when Netanyahu gave his politically disastrous speech to Congress, bypassing the State Department and White House to deal directly with the elected representative of the Eighth District of Ohio. When Netanyahu deepened his ill-advised slog into local American politics trying to beat Secretary Kerry’s Iran deal, he incurred a political failure that was as spectacular as it was rare, and abandoned any pretense at hiding the operational alignment of his Likud Party with the Republicans’ political agenda.

Although American Jews and Washington decision-makers may be losing patience with the Likud-Republican alignment in American politics, that alignment pays big dividends for Netanyahu in Israel – if only because I can tell as a professional that the Likud has long benefited from very solid, very sophisticated political operational advice. If the Likud can spare an accomplished operative like Dermer to serve as its spokesman back in Washington, I can tell that it benefits from much advice and coordination with Republican operatives.

Volunteer Experiences from the 2015 Campaign in Tel Aviv

During the 2015 election, I volunteered for both the Zionist Union and for Jeremy Bird’s well-funded but ill-fated effort at an independent left-wing campaign, called V15. I couldn’t let an election that important go by without putting some shoe leather to it, and I also wanted to see firsthand what an Israeli election was like.

What comes next is going to sound very critical, but I mean it as good news. It is good news that the Israeli right eked out only the narrowest of possible victories when the left ran such a very bad campaign. It suggests reason for hope. If we kept the right wing to 61 seats with such an utterly incompetent campaign, we might keep them to 59 seats with a better one.

Let me not mince words: the 2015 Zionist Union campaign was inept from start to finish. This is not to discount the hard and dedicated work of low-level employees, the folks who directly manage volunteers, implementing orders from above. But this campaign made every political error I believe I’ve ever seen, all at once. There was no momentum going into the campaign – an issue to which I’ll return below with some constructive suggestions. I signed up for membership in the Zionist Union some weeks before the election, which would suggest that I took some partisan initiative in the election. But I never got a call to volunteer or donate; ultimately I went to a volunteer event on my own initiative. There did not seem to be any role for a native English speaker, notwithstanding that in America fluent speakers of Spanish, Chinese and just about any other language you can name are eagerly catalogued by campaigns and sent to talk to voters who prefer to speak their language (I know because I was part of the technological innovation that made such operations possible at scale in the Democratic Party, nearly 15 years ago). At a party for dozens of English-speaking volunteers and at least one high donor after the campaign, an aide opened with a pitch – but it was not a pitch to donate funds; it was a pitch to please buy something from the bar so the bar wouldn’t lose money. That embarrassment and missed opportunity was followed up by an irritable Herzog, who snapped at us not to bother him about the two-state solution, because he didn’t want to talk about it. And that’s just a small sample of the Zionist Union’s specific, tactical mistakes. Everyone screws up occasionally, but an uninterrupted pattern of unforced errors like this would not be seen in political campaigns with operational competence. Well-run campaigns have higher standards.

I also tried volunteering for the V15 campaign, an effort by Obama operative Jeremy Bird. V15 was just what I would have done if I were running an independent-expenditure grassroots campaign supporting Democrats in Pennsylvania or Colorado. For such an effort, I’d probably set up a campaign office in a big city and send out volunteers to get out the vote in liberal-leaning precincts. But Israel is not America, and V15′s main accomplishment was to bequeath us interesting failures. I write not to pick on Bird, who is a great campaign professional; someone had to try an innovative idea first. But it’s important to learn some lessons now.

The weekend before Election Day, I collected my courage and my sub-fluent Hebrew, and reported to a V15 tent on a busy Tel Aviv street corner. I was handed a stack of postcard-sized notices reminding voters to vote. (Okay, I thought, this is a classic get-out-the-vote operation on left-wing turf.) But I was amazed to learn we were supposed to get voters to physically write their name and the address of their polling station on the card. (As my young volunteer coordinator patiently explained, psychologically, people remember things when they write them down.) Nobody did it. You don’t go up to an Israeli and tell them to write their name on a card while you watch. I quickly stopped asking because it was clear I was insulting people. The tactic would have been on the heavy-handed side in America, but Israelis – over 71% of whom turned out to vote – found the message condescending. Worst, it traced a major cultural disconnect that my Israeli audience found all too obvious.

The whole V15 campaign was culturally insensitive. In Israeli culture, English expressions often enjoy something like the chic, debonair je-ne-sais-quoi that French terms just as often carry in America. Yet many immigrants do not speak English, and in any case the “V” in V15 gave the campaign away immediately as foreign meddling. A touch of English might help sell jeans, but it wasn’t the right choice for a political campaign. The Hebrew tagline, achshav menatzchim, was intended to mean “Now we are winning,” but without context it could just as easily mean “Now they are winning.”

Worse, in Israel’s multiparty system “victory” doesn’t mean anything. Which left-wing party’s victory were we talking about? Out there on the street corner, people kept asking me eze miflega, eze miflega? – “which party, which party?” – when I tried to hand them a voting-reminder card. They didn’t understand that we were an independent get-out-the-vote campaign, because an independent get-out-the-vote campaign fundamentally makes no sense in a competitive multiparty system where left-wing parties more often compete with each other than with the right.

Lessons learned? First, never run a foreign campaign without being very sure in advance that the strategy, messaging and tactical structure are culturally appropriate. Second, never attempt an American-style get-out-the-vote campaign in a foreign multiparty system with high baseline turnout. Third, don’t run an independent campaign in Israel at all. Even if V15 had a better tagline and better tactics, it could not have helped but add to the confusion of an already chaotic multiparty scene.

How to Win in Israel

Next time, let’s learn from our own past failures and the other side’s successes. And we need to begin right now, because “next time” starts right now.

There must be a permanent campaign. In Israel, an election could be called at any time. The right wing is always ready. We must get ourselves ready, and we must do it now. That means collecting supporter lists and donations, engaging a volunteer network, encouraging living-room meetings and local advocacy to keep momentum between elections, and being constantly ready to fan out across the country’s cities and farms the instant an election is called. It is not possible to ramp up a campaign organization within the 90 days allotted for Israeli election activity. I guarantee the right wing is working right now to ensure their political volunteer and donation infrastructure is ready for the next election. The left must do the same, and it must do it now.

Of course, the Israeli left is highly fragmented. One lesson from 2015 is that no one party is going to win alone. Voters move fluidly between parties, with the rigid loyalty of past decades a fading memory. Most of my Israeli friends were making up their minds between left-wing parties during the run-up to the 2015 election. Right now, there are American consultants working with almost every Israeli political party from the right to the left, but this work is not producing positive results on the left.

Therefore, we need to take another tactical lesson from the right. The right wing enjoys a vast ecosystem of organizations, from groups that dump foreign money and professional help on individual right-wing settlers, to Sheldon Adelson’s for-profit but money-losing right-wing Israel Today propaganda newspaper, which is Israel’s most-read daily, with omnipresent Adelson-funded folks dressed in bright red jumpsuits pressing the tabloid into your hand. The left cannot keep operating in the shadows with meager organizational infrastructure focused on hardscrabble NGOs. Of course we need our NGOs, but we also need to get more professional in how we operationalize our politics.

We need to invest in advice, training in tactics, field and data, operational capacity-building, the mindset of a permanent campaign, and a more robust organizational infrastructure to keep high-quality political professionals employed in politics. Progressive pro-Israel American political resources would be best spent building Israeli progressives’ capacity in these ways. Instead of splitting up and choosing one left-wing party over another, I recommend Americans invest big resources in indiscriminately increasing the operational competence of political professionals across the Israeli center-left and left. Whoever opposes racism, theocracy, and the occupation, let them come and learn how to run better campaigns. Then, let them each implement their own strategy using these improved tactics. I believe we’d have a different Prime Minister today if we’d made these kinds of investments earlier – the kind of investments the right wing has already long since made.

Jeremy Sher was Director of Technology at the Washington State Democratic Party, where he ran the Democrats’ only online voter database coded in-house. For the 2008 season he served as CEO of the software company responsible for ActBlue.com. Now Ministry Fellow and Harry Austryn Wolfson Fellow in Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Mr. Sher is expecting rabbinical ordination on April 3. He holds dual American and Israeli citizenship.


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