In Israel, a remarkable resemblance to the American presidential brawl in 2020 is the sprint to the March 23 election.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, candidates are holding virtual events or limited in-person gatherings. During the contest between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and the Democrat who defeated him, President Joe Biden, some signed up star U.S. advisers who faced off against each other.
The Israeli race is, as in the United States, a referendum on the divisive personality at the top and its stewardship of a COVID-19 brutalised nation.
The choice was seen by many Americans as Trump, or almost anyone else. The field is split between those in Israel who are for or against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu implores people to “come back to life” where Trump had, “Make America Great Again.
A common theme is the question of moral authority, too. Trump was accused as president of a multitude of wrongdoings, including sexual misconduct against more than a dozen women (he denies all of them), tax questions, and serial truth-telling problems. Last week, Netanyahu pleaded not guilty to charges of breach of confidence, fraud and accepting bribes.
The two men have both cast themselves as victims.
Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York, said, “It’s almost verbatim.” They’re both victims of a witch hunt, and they’re both running a whole campaign about how they’re going to get me out. And if they’re out there to get me, they’re out there to get you.”
But the key difference is there. Netanyahu remains Israel’s most popular politician, while Trump suffered a solid defeat in November, and has a strong chance of continuing his 12-year reign.
That stems in part from the vastly different populations and government systems of the two nations. The U.S. is home to almost 330 million people; there are just over 9 million in Israel. America is a democratic republic where, on Election Day, voters select both the president and members of Congress. Israel holds national elections where an array of political parties compete in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, for proportionally awarded seats.
Since no individual party has ever won a 61-seat majority on its own, to form a government, this generates relentless coalition-building.
Netanyahu’s Likud party is projected to emerge as the largest party in the March election in all opinion polls. But his hopes of cobbling a government together have been complicated by his legal woes, with an increasing number of parties refusing to serve under a prime minister accused of serious crimes. In December, after just seven months, a delicate governing coalition between Netanyahu and his arch-rival collapsed, sending the country to its fourth vote in two years’ time.
Netanyahu has taken the virus seriously, unlike his close ally Trump, and made Israel’s vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his reelection bid.
Late last year, he personally negotiated what has become the world’s fastest vaccination drive for coronaviruses. Nearly half of the population had received the first dose of the vaccine by Tuesday. Almost one-third have been inoculated twice, and the rate of serious infections and fatalities has begun to decline.
But other parts of the management of Netanyahu’s pandemic have come under heavy criticism. Like Trump’s key allies, in defiance of the virus threat, a bloc of Netanyahu’s core supporters, the ultra-Orthodox, are breaking safety guidelines and attending mass events. Public anger is pronounced, with thousands of protesters gathering on bridges and overpasses outside his residence every week or toting black flags. They want Netanyahu to step down over his legal troubles and the profound economic harm incurred during the past year by a series of lockdowns.
Netanyahu’s toughest opponents are not retired generals but former journalists, in a break from Israeli tradition. Three party leaders are former TV commentators and Gideon Saar, a fourth rival, is married to one of the most prominent news anchors in the world.
These media-savvy personalities have waged impressive pandemic politicking, supported in some cases by American strategists.
Lesson No. 1: Learn successful interactive campaigning on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, cross-post those activities, and weave them with relentless social media campaigns.
Netanyahu, educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. and deeply familiar with American politics, named his campaign manager, Aaron Klein, a native of Philadelphia, last month. Klein, 40, is a former U.S. talk show host and chief of Breitbart News’ former Jerusalem office. At the time, he was named by the site’s executive chairman, Steven Bannon, who would later become Trump’s main strategist.
Long-time American adviser John McLaughlin, whose banner photo atop his Twitter feed features him shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump, has also brought back the prime minister. In recent campaigns, Netanyahu has used similar photos. But with Biden in office, this time around, he has played down the Trump connection.
Saar, Netanyahu’s onetime ally, is now questioning the prime minister from the right. Last month, by attacking his moral authority, he hired several founders of the Lincoln Project, perhaps the best-known anti-Trump group in the 2020 election, which drew Republican voters away from the president. The organisation is now dealing with accusations about how one member, John Weaver, who has resigned, treated claims of sexual assault. Saar’s campaign on Tuesday said it was re-evaluating its relations with the party.
The moral concerns posed against Trump are close to the message of Saar as head of New Hope, the party he formed when he broke away from the Likud of Netanyahu.
Saar shares the hard-line nationalist ideology of the prime minister; he is a keen supporter of West Bank settlements and supports their eventual annexation. But he’s trying to contrast with Netanyahu, who, he said, turned Likud into a “personality cult,” a familiar rhetoric for anyone who listens to Trump’s different opponents.
In his campaign, Saar also makes civility and decency a centrepiece, reminiscent of the approach of Biden against Trump. “Saar said in an AP interview that he was “in a better position” to have a positive relationship with Biden than Netanyahu.
Partnering with influential Democratic pollster Mark Mellman is another Netanyahu challenger, Yair Lapid. Lapid travelled to the U.S. last month to meet personally with his longtime ally, the Times of Israel reported.
Lapid, a former anchorman, said several times during a virtual town hall on Feb. 9, “The situation here in Israel is crazy.” “With integrity, we can have a prime minister.”