Despite all of the predictions that he would be driven from office, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu scored a major victory March 17 and will, apparently, end up with his dream government.
To understand his success, one must focus first and foremost on the last few days of the campaign.
The ‘givalt’ campaign
The last polls came out on Friday March 12th, five days before the election (it is illegal to carry out any public surveys after that date).
They predicted that the “HaMachane Hatzioni” (the Zionist Camp) led by Yitzchak Herzog would receive more Knesset seats than Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Then Netanyahu launched what many commentators referred to as a “givalt” campaign.
Givalt is a Yiddish term which perhaps can best be translated as “Oh my God” and warns that something awful is about to happen. Netanyahu used every communication channel available to send one very clear and very frightening message: “If you don’t come out and vote for me, the leftists and the Arabs are going to take over the government”.
The Prime Minister gave endless interviews in the mass media and on his Facebook page and sent text messages to millions of cell phones to get his message across.
It was extremely effective and not only did Netanyahu “close the gap,” he managed to create his own gap and (as of this writing) received 30 seats while the Zionist Camp received only 24.
Going against conventional wisdom
Netanyahu’s success was based on two developments:
- His race-baiting and his turn to the right (no Palestinian state, not an inch of territory) allowed him to siphon off at least four seats from his right wing ally “Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home).
- He was able to bring out quite a number of voters who might have otherwise stayed home. As of the time of this writing the voter turnout appears to have risen by at least four percent to 72.3%.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this dynamic is that conventional wisdom tells us that candidates usually move to the center of the political map because that’s normally where one finds the most undecided voters.
Think of President Bill Clinton in the 1996 elections outflanking Bob Dole by moving to the right on the issues of welfare and crime. The same is true of the United Kingdom’s Tony Blair who won several elections by moving to the right with "New Labor.” Even Benyamin Netanyahu himself moved to the center in his successful 1996 campaign against Labor’s Shimon Peres by saying he would recognize the Oslo peace agreements.
This time, however, Netanyahu shifted to the right because he correctly assumed that he had much more to gain by taking votes from his natural allies. Clearly such a strategy only makes sense in a country with a multi-party system such as Israel.
The rather unimpressive influence of the old and new media
There is another rather important insight to be gained from this particular election campaign and it has to do with assumptions about the “power of the media.”
It turns out that in this election campaign there was very little evidence that either the traditional or the new media had a major influence on the final outcome, at least not in the way one might expect.
A great deal of the traditional news media gave up any pretense of objective reporting and gave the public an endless series of embarrassing stories about Netanyahu and his wife. The Prime Minster was painted as petty and corrupt while his wife Sara was portrayed as a heartless queen who mistreated her employees.
Yet, despite an endless stream of venom against the Prime Minister, he ended up pulling off one of his greatest victories. Indeed, there are some who believe that many of those who ended up voting for Netanyahu were reacting to what they saw as the leftist elite press ganging up on him and his family.
One reaches a similar conclusion about the relative unimportance of the social media in this election campaign.
In the 2013 campaign many commentators were extremely impressed by the ability of two young and charismatic leaders to exploit Facebook on their way to electoral success. Yair Lapid, the leader of “Yesh Atid” (There is a Future) and Naftali Bennett from “HaBayit Hayehudi” generated a tremendous amount of Likes and traffic for their posts and their video clips.
Both candidates, as well as many others, also achieved a great deal of virtual success in this election campaign and the use of humor led many of these clips to go viral.
One of the most successful videos was created by Naftali Bennett in which he dressed up as a Tel Aviv hipster and found himself constantly apologizing for things that were someone else’s fault. The waitress spilled coffee on him and he apologized, someone ran into his car from behind and he apologized. You get the idea. He then removed his fake beard, his glasses, and his hat turns to the camera and tells everyone that “From today we stop apologizing. Join Bayit Hayehudi today”. The message was a powerful reminder for those who believe that Israel should stop giving in to international pressure.
In the end, however, it would seem that being entertained is not the same as being persuaded. Bennett’s party dropped from twelve seats to eight and Lapid’s party dropped from nineteen seats to eleven.
At the same time, one has to ask whether Netanyahu’s givalt campaign would have been as successful if he had been unable to successfully exploit all of the communication technology that has become available.
It is hard not to be impressed by the incredibly rapid turnabout in the last few days of the campaign. We will need quite a few more election campaigns in many more countries before we are in a position to fully understand how the advent of the digital media changes the nature of modern political campaigns.