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Netanyahu rival hires Lincoln Project for March election

Former Likud senior Gideon Saar hopes the veteran American strategists can help him win the next elections and topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A billboard by The Lincoln Project is seen in Times Square on October 25, 2020 in New York, depicting Ivanka Trump presenting the number of New Yorkers and Americans who have died due to Covid-19 along with her husband Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, with a Vanity Fair quote. - The Lincoln Project, is defending its right to erect billboards in Times Square critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner,after an attorney for President Trump's daughter and her husband threatened to sue. (Photo by T

The big news this week is that the chairman of the New Hope Party, Gideon Saar, has hired the services of the four top American campaign strategists behind the Lincoln Project to help him with his run for prime minister. The Lincoln Project waged a highly effective campaign to remove President Donald Trump from office in the November 2020 US election. During the campaign, the four former Republican strategists — Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens, Reed Galen and Rick Wilson — used sophisticated strategies to convince moderate Republican voters that Trump doesn’t represent them or the values of the Republican Party. Now it looks like Saar is trying to do the same thing in the upcoming Israeli election.

It's certainly not the first time that American political strategists have featured in Israeli elections. They have enormous experience campaigning in the many elections that take place across a county as vast as the United States. One of these consultants was Arthur Finkelstein, who advised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his 1996 run against late President Shimon Peres. Much of Netanyahu’s victory was attributed to Finkelstein and the advertising revolution he instigated, which included a creative negative TV ad campaign. It was new to Israel and the Peres campaign had no way to counter it.

Three years later, in 1999, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak hired the services of American consultant Stanley Greenberg. Greenberg had experience countering Finkelstein’s campaigns and helped put Barak in the prime minister’s office. Then there was Mark Mellman, the man behind Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid’s successful run in 2013, in which he won 19 seats. His campaign focused on one concern: the needs of the middle class. 

And yet there is something different about Saar and the Lincoln Project. Likud voters who feel that Netanyahu doesn’t represent their party’s values anymore need a new home, which is what his New Hope party offers. As of now, its support in the polls comes mainly from center-left voters who would vote for any candidate who poses a genuine threat to Netanyahu.

Eldad Yaniv served as Barak’s chief of staff during his term as prime minister and in his 1999 election campaign. He told Al-Monitor, “Hiring advisers from the Lincoln Project is a very wise and bold move. They can help Saar wage a brutal negative campaign against Netanyahu. The problem with a campaign like that, which worked against Trump, is that Netanyahu really is the beloved and unchallenged leader of the Likud party, while Trump stole the Republican Party out from under them. It will be hard to move ardent Netanyahu supporters from one candidate to another. It was a lot easier to convince Republicans, because they had less of an emotional connection to an outsider like Trump.”

Saar knows that he will never be able to defeat Netanyahu if he doesn’t win the hearts of moderate right-wing voters, especially Likud voters, particularly those who are fed up with Netanyahu’s long rule. On the other hand, that Israel has multiparty elections as opposed to the two-party American system could be an advantage. Saar is described as a right-winger who supports annexation of the West Bank and the settlement project. They can switch allegiance to him without feeling like they crossed over to the other side. At the same time, however, it will be really hard to convince Netanyahu’s base to abandon him. The last person to do so was former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who headed Kadima in 2006. He not only defeated Netanyahu but left him with just 12 seats.

Can something that worked in the United States have the same effect in Israel? Strategic consultant Eyal Arad, who was behind the wins of three prime ministers (Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Olmert), told Al-Monitor, “The Lincoln Project certainly can succeed in Israel. I know one of the four consultants personally, and I can say with confidence that he is a wonderful person. As a group, they were behind massive election campaigns in the United States. And they specialize in negative campaigns. Netanyahu has never faced a professional negative campaign like the Americans know how to run. He dominated the negative campaign route until now. This could be the counterbalance that leads to a turn-about. So far, Netanyahu’s negative campaign involved warning voters about the Arabs and the left. But Saar is no left-winger, and the Arab votes that Netanyahu suddenly wants to win over present a certain problem for him. So far, the Likud has failed to establish a clear strategy for this new campaign. That is why I have no doubt that the current election will be fascinating.”

Strategic adviser Musa Hassadya, who turned down an offer to work on the Likud campaign for Israel's Arab society, commented to Al-Monitor, “Israeli political strategists are much more familiar with Israeli politics and culture than their American counterparts. They know the diversity of the different parties, groups and religions and the unique nature of Israeli society, which will change and transform itself every single day up until the election. I assume that Saar plans to reach out to 'Likud supporters lite' to convince them to vote for him for ideological reasons. That seems to be why his party picked the American to help with their campaign.”

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