Switching Sides Inevitable in Israel’s Rowdy Political Landscape
Political strategists Roni Rimon (L) and Tami Sheinkman (R). (Screenshots: Twitter)

Switching Sides Inevitable in Israel’s Rowdy Political Landscape

Strategists explain why ideology isn’t everything – or anything – for campaign managers

Israel’s general elections are only 13 days away, but with the electoral picture getting hazier by the day and no clear victor emerging, many analysts and operatives are already gearing for a potential fifth election cycle in two years.

The seemingly irresolvable deadlock gripping Israel’s parliament has led to endless campaigning, with some strategists and tacticians finding themselves on one side of the aisle after only just advising the opposing side the previous round.

“Just like in business, you can advise one firm and then the next day advise its fierce competitor,” Roni Rimon, one of Israel’s most seasoned campaign managers, told The Media Line.

“In Israel, unlike in the United States, you almost have to switch parties, because there aren’t that many political campaigns. It’s a limited business. We don’t have sheriffs and D.A. races, only parliamentary elections.”

Rimon, who in the past handled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s successful run for office, among others, remembers having to attack rival candidates with whom he had recently worked and was close.

“As long as it’s not under the belt, there shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. “You can point to someone’s shortcomings regarding the issues at hand, without telling the whole world his inner secrets. It’s all about integrity.”

Tami Sheinkman, a top political and media strategist, believes some ideological identification with a candidate is essential for an adviser to be effective.

“Like any profession, you have to bring your professional, not personal, agenda. Having said that, I tried over the years to remain loyal to my values.”

Sheinkman, who in past years led the campaigns of Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and, most recently, Moshe Ya’alon, stresses that connecting with a client’s personality is more important than supporting their agenda.

“In the past, Israel had a clear ideological divide; parties represented substantial differences. These days, strategists aren’t managing parties but rather the person heading them and his own persona,” she says. “You have to believe in that person, give them your all! Of course, all the while remaining critical and professional.”

Added Rimon: “I can work with someone whom I like personally, but I have to take a step back to maintain my professional integrity. You actually need some mental distancing from the campaign.”

“Totally identifying with your client may harm your professional judgment. If you become a fan, you’re not an adviser. You have to detach yourself emotionally and identify his shortcomings, not be starry-eyed.”

A campaign manager who has worked for several candidates in recent years, and who wished to remain unnamed because of their involvement in the current cycle, admitted that switching sides wasn’t easy.

“You have to remember what your job is,” the strategist told The Media Line. “Of course you wouldn’t do something that totally goes against your beliefs, but within that framework, your job is always to help your client’s goals, not yours.”

Both Rimon and Sheinkman told The Media Line they had refused to work with some clients because of ideological differences.

“The people themselves were great; we could have easily become friends. But I can’t represent an organization whose activity is totally against my values,” Rimon says.

The turnover rate of the past year, thanks to Israel’s three consecutive election cycles, has led some consultants to publicly criticize their former employers within weeks of switching gigs.

“It embarrasses me,” an outraged Sheinkman explains. “I can’t understand this disloyalty. I think it disgraces the profession. They have to realize they’re just the advisers, not the candidate. Don’t get confused, your job is behind the scenes.”

“Whatever the level of intimacy advisers and candidates reach during their work together, campaigners should never disparage their clients once the work is done,” Rimon agrees. “It’s ugly. It’s not done. If someone lets you enter their inner circle, treats you like family, gives you full access – revealing all that is nothing short of betrayal.”

As for the current race, entering the homestretch with 13 days to go, the veteran campaigners advised caution.

“Netanyahu’s strategy is extremely smart, ignoring his challengers from within the right wing and focusing his attacks on [Opposition Leader Yair] Lapid,” Rimon identifies. “That will drive right-wing voters to Netanyahu.”

Adds Sheinkman: “The public is tired, from the coronavirus, from the politicians and all the lies. There’s an indifference. Fifth elections are definitely an option, the way things look now. But that’s not to say things won’t change in the remaining days.”

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