Israel's new rules for social media in politics

The social network revolution, combined with the 2011 social protest and increased transparency in politics, have pushed aside veteran politicians in favor of fresh senior politicians such as Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and, lately, Moshe Kahlon.

al-monitor Israel's Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett (2nd L) walk together during the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 18, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

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yisrael beitenu party, social media, politics, political parties, israel, internet, facebook, elections

Dec 31, 2014

It was autumn 2010. Sitting in his tiny Jerusalem office, Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri began heating up the engines as he prepared for his prodigal return to politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed his second government just a year and a half earlier, was enjoying coalition stability and quiet, with the chairman of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, serving as his defense minister and the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, Avigdor Liberman, (with 15 seats) as his foreign minister. Shas (with 11 seats), headed by Eli Yishai, controlled the Interior and Housing ministries. The opposition was led by former Minister Tzipi Livni, then the leader of the Kadima Party — the largest party in the Knesset, with 28 seats.

For years, Deri continued to consult with his two good friends, Liberman and former Minister Haim Ramon. Now, however, he started to meet also with other political players and re-established his outstanding relationship with the secular media. Then just 51 years old, he talked about forming a new party that would compete with Shas, even while he planned a takeover of the very party he was forced to leave. Over the course of these endless conversations, he put together imaginary coalitions and examined all sorts of potential political scenarios. In all of these, he played a central role as the leader of a large party.

Two years later, he returned to politics, chiseling out a place for himself in the Shas party leadership before the 2013 elections. At the time, he discovered that the politics he once knew so well had changed. Two young politicians, former Minister Yair Lapid and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, had just entered the fray, and as it turned out, they spoke a whole new language.

Deri wasn’t the only one having a hard time reorienting himself to this changing political system. So did former Prime Ministers Barak and Ehud Olmert, former Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik and former Minister Meir Shitreet. So did also many other major figures, who dominated Israeli politics for the past two decades.

The 2013 elections were a watershed moment, dividing old politics from new. That well-worn term “new politics” didn’t necessarily refer to better, cleaner politics. It simply meant a different kind of politics.

This was the first election campaign in which the Internet and social network revolution played such a dominant role. They first came to prominence by driving the social protests two years earlier in the summer of 2011, bringing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets.

At the time, veteran politicians like Netanyahu and Liberman mistakenly believed that they would be able to win more than 40 seats together with their message that Israel needed strong leaders against terrorist threats and Iran. Then reality struck them squarely in the face. The “alliance of brothers” forged by Lapid and Bennett dictated what kind of government would take shape. Deri was dumbfounded. Shas was flabbergasted. For the first time in recent memory, they were left out.

While the alliance between Lapid and Bennett has since fallen apart, it is important to understanding how deep the changes to Israeli politics ran. Two relative youngsters had clambered to the top of Israeli politics, using the social networks, especially Facebook, as their stepladder. They had formed a strange new alliance, which was rightly perceived as completely unnatural. What held them together was that they both spoke the same language. It took nothing more than a wink for them to understand each other, just like it took the batting of an eyelash for Deri to understand Liberman and Ramon two decades earlier.

We are now in the midst of a historic social network revolution, an upheaval so potent that it is changing the very face of our politics. About a quarter of the people elected to the last Knesset were newcomers. This phenomenon will continue in the next elections.

Social networks have made transparency all the more exacting, and this has evoked deep-rooted changes in the Israeli political system. For instance, scandals that could once be kept out of the public eye are gaining tumultuous exposure. Even though this often occurs through traditional media channels like television news, their exposure is now accelerated and a wide unmediated public debate takes place on Facebook and Twitter.

The mere possibility of being able to disseminate information over the Internet in a matter of seconds has accelerated the rate at which television covers stories too. This week, for example, Deri looked into several ways to prevent the release of the “Bombshell recording” over the Internet, but in the end he abandoned the idea as a lost cause. And we should not forget the technological advances that enabled other recordings, which completely changed the world order. One example is the audiotapes of former Prime Minister Olmert's assistant Shula Zaken that publicly buried Olmert.

Israel’s political leadership has been changing dramatically within a span of just a few years. The two new players, Lapid and Bennett, derive their power directly from the public and engage that public in direct dialogue. Alongside these Facebook parties, traditional parties like Deri’s Shas are collapsing. Even the future of Yisrael Beitenu no longer looks so promising as a result of the exposure given to its alleged corruption scandal.

This is nothing less than dramatic in the balance of Israeli political power. While it is still too early to predict how the damage will affect Shas and Liberman's party, one thing is certain: They will both be much smaller parties than we were used to. Furthermore, it is not at all certain that the two close friends, Liberman and Deri, will have a chance in the future to sit around the same Cabinet table, concocting their political plots and plans.

Netanyahu may be the great survivor of Israeli politics, but he has also been fading since the social protests. Even if he manages to put together the next government, he is still the leader of an obsolete party, insulated from large swathes of the population.

In contrast, former Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who is challenging the Likud, flourished in the atmosphere of the social protests. Kahlon may have emerged from the old political mechanism of the Likud, but he most certainly derives his power from the changes underway in this new age. He draws his strength from the social networks, just as Lapid and Bennett do. True, unlike them, he is not as intimately familiar with all that new media has to offer, but the people surrounding him have been able to crack the secret of the Internet for him.

For all intents and purposes, Lapid is an absolute wizard in the field. Ever since he was fired from the Finance Ministry, he has gone back to being even more active on his Facebook page, including engaging Internet users in direct dialogue. In the previous elections, Lapid was able to hone his message as sharply as possible through these online conversations. The 19 seats that he won were a direct result of this. For that very reason, rumors of Yesh Atid’s demise are premature. Lapid is showing signs that he will once again be a key player after the coming March 17 elections.

With his viral messages, especially his hipster video, Bennett is also able to use the Internet to reach a younger audience.

Meanwhile, even the duo of Isaac Herzog and Livni have been able to ride this new wave. It may seem remarkable, but while they are relative veterans in the Israeli political scene, the pairing of the two of them is catching on as a new brand. The problem is that if their plan ultimately fails, it looks unlikely that they will be able to survive. For Livni, who headed a party with 28 seats in 2011, the Labor Party seems like the last stop on her political journey. Social networks will crown the next generation of political heroes in the coming years.

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