Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Prime Minister's strategists reveal how they seized the election from the jaws of defeat

“We decided that if we create a situation where people have to decide who they want as prime minister, people will prefer Netanyahu over Herzog.”

Ari Harow and Aron Shaviv don’t look or sound like the stereotype of a Likudnik. They are Ashkenazi immigrants from English-speaking countries who live in Modi’in.

Shaviv is a campaign strategist who specializes in Center-Right parties in Europe. Born in Oxford in the UK, he was raised in Canada, Australia and Israel. The Los Angeles-born Harow was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trusted chief of staff until he left the post to help run the campaign. Nevertheless, they helped Netanyahu tap into the psyche of right-wing voters and turn an election that looked hopeless four days before the polls opened into a sweeping victory.

“Both of us are veteran olim who served in IDF combat units, and we have a very good feel of what the people of Israel are looking for,” says Harow, who has been involved in Likud campaigns for 15 years. “The Likud represents a microcosm of Israel, not just the prototype. It represents all sectors and calls for a strong Israel with a prime minister who speaks for what Israel believes in.”

The challenges they faced along with native-Israeli born strategists Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber and US strategist John McLaughlin included the conventional wisdom early in the campaign that the prime minister was unbeatable, an excess of satellite parties on the Right, and too many voters who wanted Netanyahu as prime minister but would not cast ballots for the Likud.

They also had to overcome two negative Comptroller’s Reports, an unending parade of “scandals,” anti-Netanyahu media outlets, and a huge sum of money that was raised abroad in an effort to bring the Left to power.

So how did they do it? “The most important decision was to drive the electorate to two large parties,” Harow says. “We decided that if we create a situation where people have to decide who they want as prime minister, people will prefer Netanyahu over [Zionist Union challenger Isaac] Herzog.”

Therefore, the first slogan of the Likud’s campaign was “It’s us or them,” referring to Herzog and his running mate Tzipi Livni, whom the Likud’s polls found extremely unpopular. Shaviv advised Netanyahu from the start of the campaign to push what he called “reverse packaging.”

The strategy was to persuade voters on the Right that rather than vote for other right-wing parties and get Netanyahu, they had to vote for Netanyahu and get the other parties in the coalition.

“You vote for a prime minister and get the parts,” Shaviv says. “You don’t buy a radio and get a car with it. You buy a car and get a radio. You vote Netanyahu and get [Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali] Bennett and [Kulanu head Moshe] Kahlon with it.”

But Shaviv had to wait for the right time to raise the stakes significantly and have Netanyahu drive that message home. The more Netanyahu fell in the polls, the more voters on the Right would feel compelled to vote for him.

A poll taken Sunday night found for the first time that fewer than half the public thought Netanyahu would form the next government. Only after that did tens of thousands of Israelis change their minds and get persuaded by Netanyahu’s countless interviews that their security required them to vote Likud.

“It’s one of those delicious ironies of the campaign,” Shaviv says. “The more people think you aren’t going to win, the more likely you will win. “Reverse packaging was devised day one and triggered at the right time. Only when it looked like Netanyahu would lose did it make sense to say you need to vote Likud to get Kahlon and Bennett.”

In the last 96 hours of the campaign, the strategists targeted the 7 to 8 percent of the electorate that was right-wing and undecided. Most of them were choosing between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi or between the Likud and Kulanu.

To that end, Netanyahu announced in radio interviews Sunday morning that if reelected, he would appoint Kahlon as his finance minister. That stopped the tide of Likud voters considering voting for Kulanu. Voters who put socioeconomic issues first on their agenda, now had those issues taken care of and could feel comfortable using their vote to guarantee Israel’s security.

Shaviv revealed that Netanyahu already decided on the appointment in early December. It was in Netanyahu’s speeches twice since then but removed to save it for a more opportune time.

“If you’re a voter who cares about housing prices, we want to say it’s taken care of,” Shaviv says. “Since it’s taken care of, ask yourself which coalition you want Kahlon to be a part of. Most of Kahlon’s voters are right-wing.”

Shaviv says Kahlon could have gained two or three Knesset seats from the Likud had he said he would only join a Netanyahu-led government. Instead, his No. 2 candidate, retired major-general Yoav Galant, played into Netanyahu’s hands by speaking openly about making a deal with Herzog.

To win support from supporters of Bayit Yehudi, Shaviv issued a directive at the start of the campaign to not attack the party. He saw how so-called “shooting inside the armored personnel carrier” harmed both the Likud and Bayit Yehudi in the last election.

Bayit Yehudi sources would say the Likud attacked them repeatedly. But Shaviv says Bayit Yehudi wrongly interpreted Netanyahu speaking in Eli and Gush Etzion as an attack on them. He says the only time the “no-attack rule” was purposely broken was when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon defended himself from Bennett’s attacks on his handling of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.

Besides going to settlements, Netanyahu proved his right-wing credentials with rhetoric that was taken more seriously by the international community than in Israel. He spoke out against the dangers of withdrawing from land, but only under the current dangerous circumstances in the region. The prime minister remains committed to the two-state solution as expressed in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech.

Netanyahu also had to drive the message through that he would not form a government with the Zionist Union, even though his opponents on the Right were saying he would. He purposely said no to a unity government for the first time after the Labor primary in which candidates with extreme statements on their records were chosen and in some cases promoted.

The message against Herzog and Livni was reinforced over the last few days of the campaign by emphasizing that the Joint (Arab) List would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that they form the next government, a decision that played into Netanyahu’s hands.

The support from the international community for the Left via organizations like V15 earned resentment from former Likud voters and helped bring them home to the party or out of their homes if they had not intended to vote.

The humorous videos released on social media were also an important element of the campaign. The Likud strategists realized the 30-second ads during the time allotted for campaign commercials had become an anachronism. When people watched them, they were a captive audience to the messages of the parties, but now people zap away.

“People won’t allow parties to ram messages down their throats anymore,” Shaviv says. “To deliver messages effectively now you have to be entertaining. The ‘Bibi-sitter’ ad for instance was not only entertaining, it also delivered a key message: Who do you trust to maintain the security of your children?” Shaviv and Harow give all the credit for the win to Netanyahu.

“He was on message, razor sharp, and did every media interview we could come up with,” Shaviv says. “He carried the campaign and swung it to victory.”