In the US elections of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ran against Republican Barry Goldwater who was seen as being tough on the Soviet Union and having an itchy finger on the nuclear button.
The Democrats produced an election campaign commercial in which a young girl standing in a meadow is ripping the petals off of a daisy one by one while a man’s voice counts down in the background. When he reaches the number one, the camera focuses on the girl’s eye, there is an explosion and a nuclear mushroom fills her pupil. The voiceover says: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark.”
The Americans chose to march toward the light and Johnson beat Goldwater by a margin of 20%. Since then, campaigns across the world seek negative ads that will destroy their opponent’s prospects.
The principle is that a good campaign needs a villain. The bleaker the polls are for the candidate, the more he will try to sully his opponent. If you have trouble making friends, make the public fear your opponent.
Netanyahu used this tactic during the 1996 elections, with the aid of his American strategist Arthur Finkelstein. The then Labor Party leader Shimon Peres was leading in the polls and his victory seemed assured. Then Netanyahu released his winning campaign slogan: “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” while Yasser Arafat can be seen holding hands with Peres as they walk along a background of shattered glass as the voiceover said: “Peres and Arafat are a dangerous combination for Israel.”
The PLO chairman was the most despised person in Israel and the Likud ad succeeded in portraying Peres as evil in the eyes of the public and helped elect Netanyahu prime minister.
In the present election season, it seems that the Likud is recycling its 1996 campaign strategy. The figure of Benny Gantz replaces that of Peres as the villain who needs to be tarred and feathered in the town square.
Netanyahu takes no prisoners; he campaign with the goal to eliminate adversaries. In the Likud’s commercials, Gantz (who was in charge of the Nablus region at the time) is accused of abandoning injured Druze IDF soldier Madhat Yusuf at Joseph’s Tomb as he bled to death.
The campaign is also highlighting that Gantz attended an event that “in memory of the terrorists killed during Operation Protective Edge.” The Likud’s slogan is “Tibi and the Left want Gantz in power. Gantz is Left. Left is weak.”
And why not? If this tactic was effective 22 years ago it can work again now. Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu, only the villain has changed.
The problem is that Netanyahu is not exactly the same Netanyahu. In 1996 he was the Knesset opposition leader who lagged behind in the polls, so he had to attack the sitting prime minister. In 2019, Netanyahu is the prime minister and he is leading in the polls. Why should he give his opponent a platform on which to show the public that they are equals? Furthermore, why create the impression that he fears Gantz?
Netanyahu’s negative campaign shows that al is not right. He fears the moment Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces that he will submit an indictment against him. The polls may change and the Likud may find itself equal to or lagging behind Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party. In such a scenario, the game changes and it justifies the negative campaign.
Netanyahu will have to put up with the negative campaign of all the other parties under the slogan: “Corrupt one, go home.” Until now he has succeeded in convincing voters that he did not take any money therefore there was no bribery. The expected decision by Mandelblit, a religious man who served as Netanyahu’s government secretary, will create a crack in his claim of a left-wing conspiracy to overthrow the prime minister outside of the voting booth.
Netanyahu will be obliged to use his winning card: that he is Mr. Security who will protect the nation from the Iranians and concessions to the Palestinians. Yair Lapid and Avi Gabbay are not viewed as having the necessary security credentials and don’t pose a threat to Netanyahu on that front. Only Gantz does, along with his partner Moshe Ya’alon, both former IDF chiefs.
For that reason, Netanyahu has instructed his campaign managers to eliminate Gantz. The decisive code word is Leftist, which, in the eyes of the Right, is equal to being a traitor, one who collaborates with Israel’s enemies.
In 1996 it was Peres and Rabin. In 2019 it is: “Gantz and Abbas are dangerous for Israel.” On Election Day, Netanyahu will cry out: “The Arabs are streaming to the polls to elect Gantz as prime minister.”