‘Americanization’ of Israeli politics contributed to Netanyahu’s election victory, expert says

Mass media expert Dr. Gabriel Weimann believes President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used similar tactics in their 2016 and 2019 campaigns, respectively.

By James Fattal

The “Americanization” of Israel’s political landscape and the rising prominence of social media in election campaigns both contributed to this month’s election victory by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, said mass media expert Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at University of Haifa.

On Thursday morning in New York City, Weimann held a briefing on behalf of the American Society of the University of Haifa in which he unpacked the implications of the 2019 Israeli election and explored the role mass media played in the outcome. Earlier this week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin confirmed that he will give Netanyahu Likud the first chance to form Israel’s next governing coalition.

“In the Israeli elections of the early 1970s, you saw many TV commercials, press conferences, and gatherings in the streets,” said Weimann, who has studied the evolution of political propaganda in Israel over the last five decades. “Today, TV’s power has gone down and has been supplanted by social media — particularly for Netanyahu, who during this year’s campaign often posted on Twitter, Facebook, and other online platforms a dozen times per day. This represents the Americanization of Israeli politics, a gradual process that actually started with Netanyahu himself in 1996, when he was the first Israeli candidate to have an American political advisor.”

Comparing America’s 2016 election outcome to Israel’s 2019 result, Weimann explained that Netanyahu’s approach was similar to the campaign strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Trump and Netanyahu prefer the same media tactics,” Weimann said. “First, it’s a negative campaign. Instead of speaking about yourself, you criticize your competitor. Second, they divide and conquer, capitalizing on schisms within their societies — for Netanyahu, it was divisions between Arabs and Jews, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, the left and right, the religious and secular. Third, both Netanyahu and Trump portrayed the media as campaigning against them.”

In 2017, University of Haifa introduced a first-of-its-kind course in the study of the “fake news” phenomenon. Weimann believes fake news is particularly prevalent during election seasons, when today’s politicians increasingly spread rumors about their opponents on social media.

“University scholars can monitor changes in mass media over time, and place current trends in the context of historic patterns,” Weimann said. “I think the only way to defend a society against the alarming challenges of fake news, fake identities, and the threats posed by social media is to educate our students about the need to be smarter and more critical consumers of media.”

“We are proud that University of Haifa is committed to utilizing the setting of higher education to creatively counter trends like fake news which threaten the very fabric of our democracies, from Israel to the U.S. and beyond,” echoed Karen L. Berman, CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa. “Indeed, universities are the institutions which are best positioned to cultivate a new generation of thought leaders who are committed to the truth.”