How Obama Inspired Israeli Politicians’ Online Campaigns

    by Jaron Gilinsky
    February 26, 2009
    From the home page of Benjamin Netanyahu's official Obama-inspired website

    Just as television changed the way political campaigns were run in the 1960s, the Internet has changed the way political campaigns are run in the 2000s. Upwards of 70 million people watched the more aesthetically-pleasing JFK debating the more radio-suited Nixon on the tube in 1960. Nearly 50 years later, the YouTube debates of 2008 allowed people to ask their own questions to the candidates, or watch the debates online — on demand — on any Internet-equipped device. While television transformed political campaigns simply by making candidates viewable, the Internet’s social media functions are changing modern political campaigns all over the world in ways previously thought unimaginable.

    The potential of social media in political campaigns has quickly been realized in Israel, where candidates took note of online media’s big impact on the recent U.S. election. Internet connectivity in the solitary Middle Eastern democracy is higher than any country in the region, and is on par with much of Europe. More than half of Israel’s 7 million people have Internet access, either at home or at work.

    We were all affected by Obama-mania." -- Sa'ar Vardi, Kadima Party

    The recently held Israeli parliamentary election was a hotly contested race, between leading candidates Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party. According to pollsters, 30 percent of Israelis were undecided just a few weeks before the election. Each candidate knew the importance of the Internet in winning the hearts and minds of Israeli voters.


    Tzipi Livni

    “We were all affected by Obama-mania,” said the editor of the official Kadima website, Sa’ar Vardi, in an interview at Kadima Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on the eve of the February 10 Israeli elections. Obama’s campaign did more than just transcend the racial barrier in the U.S. It also transcended the online barrier in a campaign the entire world was watching.

    Here’s more of my interview with Vardi:


    Sarit Harel, a professional digital campaigner for the PR/advertising firm EuroRSCG-Israel, was the woman behind Livni’s social media campaign. Her first step, even before creating the official Kadima Party website, was creating Livni’s personal blog. This became the centerpiece of the online campaign, receiving around 20,000 unique hits a day leading up to the election. “The idea was to put Tzipi’s videos and message everywhere Israelis can be found on the Internet, and always mirror this same information on the blog,” Harel told me in an interview.

    Harel’s strategy proved to be both effective and cheap. She found the most popular Israeli websites that allowed free, user generated content — Tapuz, Israblog, and The Marker — and uploaded videos of Tzipi Livni there for all of Israel to see. The videos were short, personal appeals to Israeli voters shot in intimate locations such as her home staircase or the inside of her limousine.

    Here’s one of Livni’s videos:

    “Tzipi (Livni) understood the power of the Internet in this election,” said Harel, “That’s why she allowed a camera crew and photographers into her house almost every single day.” The photos were posted to Flickr, while the videos were posted to YouTube and Facebook. Real time updates were provided on Twitter. All this was done for free; the only direct digital marketing cost incurred by Kadima was to pay Google for their search ads.

    The digital effort brought 1.2 million unique visitors to the blog (nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population) in the 90 days leading up to the election. Most significantly, it was done with almost no direct marketing costs. The bulk of Kadima’s advertising budget was spent on television, print, radio, and billboard ads. There is a growing sense that the traditional political advertising methods may not yield the best bang for the buck (or Israeli shekel). “The return on investment (ROI) when it comes to digital campaigns makes it a much more attractive option than the mainstream media, and it will become more and more popular in the future,” said Harel.

    Benjamin Netanyahu

    Netanyahu’s website designer, Kobi Haddad, CEO of KCSnet, an Israeli web design company, boasted of similar success. “We had to host our site on two servers to deal with the number of hits we were getting,” he said in an interview. Haddad admits that Likud asked him to take the main concept design from Barack Obama’s campaign website. But digging deeper, the Likud site revealed some unique social functions that the Obama’s site didn’t have. (For Netanyahu’s more bare-bones English website, click here.)

    Haddad’s crew essentially designed the site to become an automated virtual campaign headquarters. They built a system where surfers could log in, create a pro-Netanyahu blog, post a pro-Netanyahu video, or host a non-virtual, pro-Netanyahu event. “There were a lot of people that wanted to help but didn’t know how,” said Haddad, “so we provided the tools.”

    The website enabled users to become their own regional campaign managers, allowing them to connect to other people in their region and enlist them for the cause. One unique tool was a system where volunteers could receive up to 30 telephone numbers a day and a dynamic script for each one that varied according to the person’s location and gender. The volunteer would then mark how responsive the person was to a pro-Netanyahu message. That information would automatically be relayed to Likud headquarters, which would follow up with an email or SMS. The more enthusiastic supporters were then urged to enlist as real-life or cyber-campaigners.

    “Our online effort was not just to get votes, but to motivate supporters to volunteer for us,” said Sani Sanilevich, Likud’s digital campaign manager. According to Sanilevich, the effort paid off, and Likud was able to amass 12,000 volunteers, many of whom were operating from home, following the website-generated script, making 30 phone calls a day.

    Netanyahu delivered daily Internet video messages that appeared on his website, YouTube, and Facebook. In the video below, he speaks from the Southern Israeli city of Ashkelon about a grad missile that landed there that morning:

    Election Day

    On election day, the website of each candidate’s site transformed itself into a fresh, exciting version of itself. Both had new videos of the candidates voting at their polling stations, and last minute online pleas for votes. Despite being favored in the polls for weeks leading up to the elections, Netanyahu received one less mandate than Livni on election day. Still, under Israel’s parliamentary system, Netanyahu has been charged with forming the next government, and will likely become the country’s next prime minister. He will be joined there by his digital campaign manager Sanilevich, a valuable asset in today’s political environment. And like Obama, Netanyahu doesn’t plan on burning his digital bridges once he’s in the government. “We are keeping the website going,” said Sanilevich, “and will be brainstorming even more ways to connect with people online.”

    Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron is the founder of Falafel TV, a documentary production company, and regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

    Tagged: elections israel social media social networking videos

    3 responses to “How Obama Inspired Israeli Politicians’ Online Campaigns”

    1. Danielle Los Angeles says:

      Good for Israel! I’m hoping Israel will learn from President Obama and the US on what or what not to do during their elections. I really would like to see Israel and the Muslim worlds would be open to listen to each others differences and work things out. I respect both of their cultures and wish the best for both sides.

    2. Victor Gilinsky says:

      I am most impressed with Jaron Giilinsky’s consistent and sharp focus on key issues and emerging trends.

    3. J. Siah says:

      To: Government of Israel/
      Palestinian Authority

      Fr: Mediation-Encouragement Services
      [email protected]

      To Sir/Madam

      I am offering a solution with my services to both parties of this ongoing Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I am therefore proposing a long term plan to diffuse and calm all hot blooded tempers for a millennium.

      The facts are that two entities cannot occupy the same space and time as each other and have a difference of opinions and beliefs. Therefore a consensus must be upheld to modify and adjust for the satisfaction of both parties involved. Being that the Palestinians have lived in the Territory (recently known as Palestine, now Israel) since approximately 1000AD without Jewish interference, I now believe it is time to give the Jewish people the right to the same concessions the Palestinians once enjoyed while living at peace in the land.

      The fact that both parties claim rightful ownership of Palestine/Israel is very much a dilemma and will take time to find a viable solution which all involved find satisfactory and equitable. In the interim, I have suggested a cooling off period of 1000 years/millennium, to be fair to the Jewish and Palestinian claimants. As we all know, the Jewish people had their experiences with all the countries of the world, which ended with their repatriation to Palestine after WWII. It is now time for the Palestinians to experience the world and all its pleasures, like the Jewish people have in the last millennium. Fair is fair, the Palestinians must be given a chance like the Jewish people to travel and learn new languages, become better educated in all faculties, live in all climates and experience all things.

      This takes money and we know the Jewish people have a knack of controlling their finances, which has given them the ability to live anywhere they please. The Palestinians should have the same courtesy given to them as they venture out into the world where finance is king. This means somebody has to pay for peace and this somebody is the world. I am in the process of working out a 1000 year lease agreement, whereby the Palestinians accept the terms and conditions to go throughout the world and live in all countries for a period of no less than a millennium.

      This 1000 year lease agreement for the peaceful transition of Palestine has strings attached:
      Terms and Conditions:

      (1) The Palestinians shall give up the land of Palestine for a period of 1000 years, at which time they must renegotiate the agreement with Israel to either continue to fight for Palestine, negotiate further benefits or sell their rights and move on. Either way this is an interim solution which has benefits to both Palestinians and Israelis to the highest degree.
      (2) In turn, the Israelis and the world must pay a $100,000.00 signing bonus to each and every Palestinian in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and negotiate access to citizenship to any country in the world they desire to go.
      (3) The Israelis and the world must pay a prorated lifetime pension to each and every Palestinian and Palestinian descendant for a period of the 1000 year lease agreement. The Israelis and the world must pay the pension every thirty days for life of each Palestinian and assist in all aspects of Palestinian life abroad, to further educate and enrich the lives of the Palestinian peoples.
      (4) The Palestinian peoples will keep the peace with Israel and the Jewish people living abroad and in all countries of the world for a period of 1000 years. At the expiration of the millennium, renegotiations come into effect for further conditions of settlement.
      (5) All Arab countries shall participate for a period of 1000 years and do business as usual with the State of Israel with acknowledgment of their existence.
      (6) The Palestinian and Israeli claimants shall sign an agreement to continue negotiations after the millennium of peace has expired. Pre-expiration negotiations are frowned upon and will not be tolerated by either side.
      (7) Israel shall have the right to build on all lands, including disputed territories.
      (8) Israel shall have the right to move all religious buildings, such as the Dome of the Rock to secure locations for the term of the 1000 year lease, at which time it must be return, unless renegotiations supersede the terms and conditions of the said agreement.
      (9) Israel shall acknowledge the right of the Palestinian people to ownership of: (a) One half of all the land of Israel/Palestine, (b) One half of all the wealth of Israel, (c) One half of all Businesses/Commercial and Residential housing, (d) One half of Government control of Israel, (e) One half of everything owned by Israel worldwide, after the 1000 year lease agreement expires.
      (10)All Palestinians shall completely vacate Israel/Palestine, including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for the term of the 1000 year lease agreement. This includes all married and Palestinian/Jewish persons of mixed descent.
      (11)Israelis and Palestinians shall sign an agreement for the 1000 year lease for peace. This shall be co-signed by all the countries of the world, hereby validating the said agreement.
      (12)Any breach of the agreement by either side may involuntarily set in motion the fail-safe mechanism agreed to by both parties. (Further Discussions)

      J. Siah

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