Old guard reeling as politics is reinvented

“I advertise products that I don’t necessarily consume,” says Sefi Shaked. But even with this as a caveat, it is not so easy to understand why a left-wing, secular, former Meretz voter would apply his considerable talents to promoting the right-wing religious politician Naftali Bennett — and catapult him to 12 seats in the new Knesset.

Three weeks after the latest Israeli general elections, the old certainties, by which it was relatively simple to predict which way politics would jump, are no longer in place. At the time of writing there is still no coalition and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be flailing in his attempts to bring in Mr Bennett, his former chief of staff, and the even more high-achieving Yair Lapid and his 19-seat Yesh Atid party. Each day the rumour-mill grinds out more off-the-wall suggestions — even including a further set of elections.

But for now, some of those involved in the shift of the political landscape that took place in January are looking at Israeli politics with fresh eyes; fresh eyes plainly wanted by the voters.

Sefi Shaked is clearly a flag-carrier for the fresh approach. A gangly and amiable, cosmopolitan Israeli who heads his own advertising agency, he was recruited to work with the Bennett campaign and its new party, Jewish Home. In fact, he says, he would have worked with Meretz, perhaps his more natural party, but he did not get on with its campaign manager. He is no stranger to working with right-wing parties: he ran Mr Netanyahu’s campaign advertising in 2009.

“I went to meet Bennett, and I understood that on 70 per cent of the issues facing Israel, we agree. On economy, the equality of the burden in the military, on helping not just the strong.”

In fact, says Mr Shaked, with no trace of the ad-man’s cynicism, his meeting with Mr Bennett was “an enchanting evening. Bennett is like me and my friends, only with a yarmulke.

“I asked him two questions that were really a red line for me. I asked what they thought about uniting with Otzma l’Israel, which in my opinion is a racist party, and they said no. And I asked them what they think about gays, and they gave me a really nice answer. They said, they deserve equal rights, but religious gay marriage in Israel is unacceptable to them. When you think about it, I also don’t need that, you can’t change thousands of years of biblical culture. But as long as there are equal rights for gay couples… so I ended up with a politician that I believe in, even though I don’t agree with him on one thing — a future Palestinian state.”

Even, says Mr Shaked, if Israel had a left-wing prime minister, the possibility of creating a Palestinian state would be slim to zero, not least in the wake of missiles falling on Tel Aviv in the last few months. So for now, he is content to have built up Mr Bennett, who became, very rapidly, a word-of-mouth international phenomenon before the January 22 elections.

Israel needs a new generation of politicians, says Mr Shaked. “These were the first elections in which people voted in the same way as they vote in a reality show… you know, ‘I like Lapid, he’s nice, I believe in Bennett...’ People already had their views of right and left, but when it came to the brand-set, they voted for the politicians that they most ‘loved’, the same as in the reality shows. About three per cent of voters will have read a party’s manifesto. Right and left are still important, but more important is now old and new.”

His big challenge, he says, was to move Mr Bennett’s Jewish Home party from a sectarian grouping to become an “A-list party which accumulates votes from all over Israeli society. A lot of my left-wing friends in Tel Aviv saw Mr Bennett and said they were going to vote for him, that they liked him, he was interesting.”

If the elections had been confined to voters under 30, says Mr Shaked, Mr Bennett and Mr Lapid between them would have got more seats than Mr Netanyahu. “They speak the digital language, the social network language, and these are the media that affect them the most. Even strategy changes once the consumer can answer you, once it’s not a monologue but a dialogue between the politician and the voters. Our whole campaign consisted of user-generated content and not copywriters who wrote slogans. The slogan, ‘Bennett is a brother’, came from teenagers supporting him on the net.”

Two things played into the Bennett campaign. “First there was the war. When people are being bombed, they become more right-wing. Here we had Netanyahu as prime minister and still they got bombed. So who is more right-wing than Netanyahu? Bennett, right-wing, but still sane.”

The second, and more important watershed for Mr Bennett, was his appearance on the Nissim Mishal political talk show. “Mishal is a very tough interviewer. He asked Bennett, would you, as a soldier, evacuate people from their homes in the case of a peace agreement? And he said no, I will break an order, I will go to jail. We were not ready for this question. But once he said it, such a big argument began that it raised his awareness to 90 per cent. All we had to do was manipulate the media currents in our direction.” In fact, Mr Bennett backtracked after 24 hours but, according to Mr Shaked, “Israelis take the hypothetical very seriously.”

If Mr Bennett is a new kind of Israeli politician, so, too, is the US rabbi Dov Lipman, the new media star of Yesh Atid.

Days before we speak, Rabbi Lipman renounced his US citizenship in order to sit in the Knesset — he and his family made aliyah in 2004 from Silver Springs, Maryland, where he was a popular modern Orthodox rabbi.

He, his wife and four children made their home in Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem. The town became a by-word for extremist behaviour among the strictly Orthodox.

For Rabbi Lipman, the lightning-rod moment came when he went to see what was going on at a demonstration held in Beit Shemesh over the apparent desecration of graves. “People started throwing stones and rocks at the police. One of the rocks hit me on the leg, and it was bleeding. I thought, what is going on here, that Jews will be throwing rocks at other Jews in Israel? I believe that the average Orthodox person will not be violent — but that the state of Israeli society had enabled the violence to happen.”

The rabbi picked up the rock, which sits today in his Knesset office, a symbol of what turned him into an activist in Beit Shemesh and then a campaigner for Mr Lapid.

As only the third “Anglo” to be elected as an MK, Rabbi Lipman has an entirely different political heritage on which to draw. “When I was younger I worked as an intern for the Michigan Congressman, John Dingell. So I understood about forging a relationship with constituents.” Accordingly, he has introduced a “constituency surgery” to be held in his Knesset office on Sunday mornings. “170,000 Anglo-Saxon voters in Israel have never had anyone to speak to directly. That’s going to change.”

Each of the 19 Yesh Atid Knesset members, Rabbi Lipman explained, “have divided the country into regions and will be responsible for different areas. This is the new politics.”

Last updated: 3:42pm, February 21 2013