"First win, then do damage control"

Ofer Golan  photo: Cadit Levy

Likud campaign manager Ofer Golan takes "Globes" behind the scenes of the aggressive and controversial election ploys that brought Benjamin Netanyahu victory.

The Likud party's campaign manager, Ofer Golan (49), doesn't bicker with journalists and media consultants on Twitter, and doesn't take part in television studio panels. He has no Facebook page, and, unlike other campaign managers, he has taken care over the years not to become a news item in himself. He doesn't appear in photos with his clients, or accompany them on trips overseas. Golan works alone, most of the time without assistance and without an office, apart from a brown, fine-leather briefcase that contains everything he needs: earphones, a laptop, and a black notebook.

It takes Golan nearly a month after the end of the tough 2019 election to emerge from behind the scenes and talk about the stormy election campaign. Golan, one of the few people to have been on Benjamin Netanyahu's staff in both this year's campaign and in the 2015 election, and who has accompanied the Netanyahu family as a personal media advisor since 2014, talks to "Globes", in the first interview he has ever given.

Likud reached a peak of Knesset seats won. There has been nothing like it since Ariel Sharon won 38 seats in 2003. How did the party's strength suddenly jump from 30 seats to 35?

"30 seats represent the Likud's base, the people who will vote for the party come what may. The five extra seats, that's the work of the campaign. Everything we did throughout the campaign was built on reaching a peak. We planned that the peak should come in the final week, and particularly in the final 48 hours, in which we worked ceaselessly on bringing out the voters."

Bringing out the voters could make them vote for Gantz or Bennett as well. What did you do specifically that boosted the number of seats for Likud?

"In the end, the public understood that if the Likud was not the largest party and if Prime Minister Netanyahu did not receive a mandate from the electorate, bad things would happen. The narrative, at the end of the campaign, was about the size of the block and the size of the party, and it was clear that if Likud led in a larger block, but with fewer seats than Blue and White, Rivlin would place the task of forming a government on Gantz.

"The public realized this, and so in the final twenty-four hours, and particularly in the very last hours, it was important to bring people out to vote. We opened Facebook Live for Netanyahu, and we brought traffic to it all the time: phone calls from city mayors, calls from organizers in the field, questions from Facebook. Netanyahu sat in front of the camera, with a pile of Likud voting slips, and spoke to the public. 'Vote, vote.' Every ten minutes we put up some story and created a sense of urgency."

What picture best sums up that day, the election day, for you? What did you photograph in your mind so that it would remain as a souvenir?

"The final hour before the polls closed, between 9pm and 10pm, after a whole day of urging people to vote, phone calls and rushing about. There was a certain stage, twenty minutes before the close, perhaps a little more. We sat down in front of the television in Balfour Street. Suddenly, Sara came up to us and said, 'Get going, there's another twenty minutes. Back to work!'"

Where were you for the exit polls? And what did you feel?

"I was in Balfour Street. Netanyahu was with his family in his study. We were outside, we saw the three exit polls, and realized that we had won. There were a few hugs, but in a quiet sort of way. I immediately called the hall at Expo Tel Aviv to make sure that everything there was ready. After he understood that he had won, he called us in. In one hand he had pieces of chocolate, his eyes were riveted to the screen, to Gantz's 'victory speech', with his left hand he started to write his celebration speech. At the same time he was already making calls to coalition partners, already moving on, already thinking about the next stage."

The division of tasks within the campaign placed Golan as campaign manager. Erez Tadmor was spokesperson for the propaganda team, and he was the one who would go to the television studios, Jonathan Orich was Likud spokesperson and the one in constant touch with Netanyahu and also responsible for the messages, and Topaz Luk was new media manager and manager of the Likud TV studio, while Golan was in general charge of the campaign and orchestrated the entire operation.

Was there constant communication with Netanyahu during the campaign, even when he was busy as prime minister and defense minister?

"He sets a guideline, but he's busy with other things most of the time. In the campaign team we worked all the time with research and in-depth surveys, and derived insights from them. That was turned into messages and fed into every arm of the campaign."

Golan does not wish to give examples and provide details from inside the Likud campaign, but from the message sheets and video clips that started to surface in the early stages of the campaign, it's clear that two elements that the Likud pushed and highlighted helped them promote the message that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was a man of the left, and they looked for ways of labelling him as weak, unassertive, ineffectual. One of the items in question was the communal singing event in aid of civilians on both sides, near the Gaza border, in which Gantz participated a year after Operation Protective Edge.

Golan: "I would come to a morning meeting at Likud headquarters, Metzudat Ze'ev in Tel Aviv, convene the team, sit with about 30 people, start to give them that day's messages, which derived from the numbers research we had."

Who did the numbers research for you? The surveys?

"John McLaughlin analyzed the numbers, and Rafi Smith of the Smith Institute supplied the numerical data."

And how did you get the messages out from that morning meeting?

"The moment that the entire team sits in one place, we brought together 30 people, it imbues them with fighting spirit, and from there the messages are spread, to the national media, the haredi media, the Russian-language media, the whole campaign moves in unison. You repeat the same message time after time all along the line, and wherever you went you encountered these messages, whether from the digital arm, or on Likud TV, or in the various sectors.

"At the same time, we also had speed of reaction, through an information team that sat in Metzudat Ze'ev. This is a group of people who read information all day, watch and listen to the various media, listen to Likud spokespersons and others, and immediately let us know when there's something they think requires a response."

Who makes the decisions when Netanyahu is unavailable?

"I make the decisions, Orich makes decisions. I'm the campaign manager, I bear the responsibility and there's no absolute certainty that things will turn out as I wanted. The campaign moves very fast, and it's impossible to micro-manage. Rather you have to be concerned with management from above of this huge operation, which spends tens of millions of shekels."

"Gantz is not fit to be prime minister"

You went for a highly offensive campaign style, describing the opponent, Benny Gantz, as someone unbalanced, insane, who takes drugs - did that tactic really work for you?

"We see in our numbers that it worked. Not in the count of seats at the end of the campaign, but in those moments when our message penetrated."

Let me ask you a question from the department of ethics and morality. You know that Gantz is a sane person; he was chief of staff, Netanyahu appointed him and worked with him, he led the IDF, and still you keep drumming the message that there's something wrong with him, that his psychological state isn't good. And you know it isn't true.

"He said Netanyahu was a traitor."

Gantz did not say that. Moshe Ya'alon said, "The submarines affair could amount to treason", and even that was said at the end of March, while the "Gantz is insane" messages started before that.

"What difference does it make? You can launder it any way you want. When they put out the video about the submarines (a Blue and White video from April 1, T.S.), its subtext was that the prime minister is a traitor."

You said that there was something wrong with him a long time before Ya'alon said in an interview "could amount to treason." Many journalists received messages on behalf of Likud regarding Gantz's supposed psychological state as early as the beginning of February. And it wasn't just his psychological state, but the hints about the supposed content of his telephone, and management failures - these are messages you planned in advance, without regard for what would emerge during the campaign, and now in retrospect you present it as a response to something that happened much later.

"Excuse me, did I know in advance that there would be the story of his telephone? How could I know that in advance? Only after the headlines appeared that the Israel Security Agency had notified him that his mobile telephone had been hacked did we respond with the need to reveal the phone's contents."

I think you may have known in advance that this story was about to break, because as I said to you earlier, many journalists received messages beforehand on Likud's behalf or in the Likud's name with three main themes: insane, supposedly; doesn't know how to manage or make decisions, supposedly; and stories without proof about what could be on his telephone.

"You're wrong. These were three separate events, and we responded to each one separately, and it's not clear to me why you say this."

Because people approached reporters and presented these messages, well before you turned it into a campaign claim.

"I called on him to disclose his medical file. If you stand for such high office, it makes sense that you should reveal these things to the public. I didn't see anything illegitimate about that. We said he wasn't fit to be prime minister, and I still think that today."

On what evidence did you think and proclaim that he was unfit? On the evidence of a supposed medical condition? What's the basis for that?

"Nothing to do with anything medical; on the basis of his lack of experience."

But in the Likud video you claimed he was psychologically unfit.

"And they claimed the prime minister was a traitor. We're on the ground in the campaign. You ask me about my personal view of how a campaign should be run, and I answer you what I have been quoted as saying in the past and repeat now: a campaign is something you first win, and then do damage control. I said it in 2015, when there was criticism of the video clip 'the left-wing non-profits are bringing the Arabs.'

"During the campaign we had internal discussions, in which the question arose whether we had gone a step too far, whether we were too aggressive. At that point, I would cut the discussion short. For me there's no question at all; I have to win."

Have you no red lines?

"If I come across a red line, I'll let you know."

You claimed that Gantz was hiding from the public things that were on his telephone. You gave out broad hints. Did you know that he was hiding something, or did you simply throw out a claim?

"It's commonsense. If the Israel Security Agency informs you that an enemy country has hacked into your mobile phone, you have a duty to put things on the table and let the voter judge, to say exactly what was on it."

But you knew that people acting on behalf of Likud were telling journalists what was supposedly on it?

"No, I didn't know what was on his mobile."

Wait a minute, I didn't ask whether you knew what the content of the telephone was; I asked you whether you knew that on behalf of the Likud people were briefing journalists about specific content that was allegedly on Gantz's telephone.

"No, I didn't know. It could be that people did that on their own initiative. You can't control everybody. There was no official briefing concerning content that was or wasn't on Gantz's mobile. There was a statement to the effect that if you propose yourself for the office of prime minister and you receive notification that an enemy country is listening to you, do the right thing and clear the air, let us know that you aren't vulnerable to blackmail."

"I'm not the story"

Until the 2019 campaign, for several years you were media advisor to the family, to Sara Netanyahu, to Yair Netanyahu, for their personal affairs. What does that involve?

"To be a personal spokesperson goes far beyond initiating positive media coverage and preventing negative coverage. It's a confidential post, with all that that implies. Shortly after I took up the role, there was a huge upset and it took a very long time to restore trust between people. You are given access to the intimate family circle, and you have to conduct yourself with a great deal of respect for personal space and with great sensitivity."

Because unlike other spokespersons, and your predecessor in the job, Nir Hefetz, you haven't turned yourself into something newsworthy?

"I don’t want to comment on others, but I'm not the story, and I don't turn myself into the story. That's true for all my clients. It's a professional approach that contributes to building trust."

As we have seen in the past, previous spokespersons for the Netanyahu family, as in the case of Shaya Segal, for example, had to take care of positive items appearing about the prime minister's wife, or of removing items that were unwelcome to them. Do you do that as well?

"I've initiated, removed, and changed many news items; that's part of the job description of a spokesperson. Fortunately for me, people are prepared to listen to me in all the media outlets, and when I point out something wrongful or distorted, and there's a lot like that, we generally reach understandings."

Who pays your salary as advisor to the family?

"The Netanyahu family pays."

How much do they pay you?

"That's between me and them. I have no complaints."

Will anyone ever be able to beat Netanyahu in a campaign?

"I can't name anyone in the political arena at the moment who has what it takes to compete against him. The strongest card that might have won the campaign was Blue and White's three former chiefs of staff. They were the heaviest weapons on the field, and they didn't achieve the desired result. It's not that the right will always continue to win. But in this campaign we worked very hard to bring victory."

The body cameras, the leak, and the Arab vote

Did the police know in advance that the Likud was going to film in polling stations in Arab settlements?

"Whoever needed to know, knew. It wasn't done in the dark."

On the day of the election, the Hadash-Ta'al list filed a complaint with the Israel Police, stating that members of the ballot committee in Arab settlements were secretly filming the voting, supposedly in an attempt to spot fraud at these polling stations.

The story of the cameras in the Arab community is very disturbing.

"To us it was clear that this was a very strong project that could change the results of the election."

Why?

"Because we knew that there was no enforcement at certain polling stations. That we were entering a vacuum that no-one had dealt with, of places where there was no enforcement in regard to unreasonable rates of voting. We were concerned about the election being clean. We thought we'd provide the police with evidence."

But you didn't worry about the cleanliness of the election in the State of Israel in general; you weren't interested in fraud in Bnei Brak or Ramat Hasharon.

"Not true, and I don't want to go into details, but it wasn't just at Arab polling stations. We went to places where the voting pattern was problematic, and where there was a lot of fraudulent voting. We knew this from the 2015 election, and we said that in this election we would devote attention to it."

Which places?

"There are other places in Jewish towns."

Did you catch fraud in Jewish towns?

"I can't tell you."

And you are aware that the very fact that you placed a camera, and that the Arab public knew of it, was enough to make people fearful of coming to vote.

"The aim wasn't to make people afraid to vote, but to protect the voting, to protect democracy, against those who had failed to protect it."

But you didn't send cameras to Ramat Hasharon to keep the election clean, even though you have hardly any voters there. How did you know in advance that there would be no fraud in Ramat Hasharon?

"There was no fraud in Ramat Hasharon. We mapped the problematic places where we realized there had been fraud in 2015."

Nevertheless, you sent your activists in advance only to places where Arabs live, because you thought that Arabs perpetrate fraud and not because you thought that everyone does.

"I don't accept that claim. We could tell that there was a problematic voting pattern in certain places and that this could pervert the election and lead to the loss of a lot of seats. We felt that we shouldn't accept this situation, and that we should provide evidence of it to the Central Elections Committee."

You also knew that if you placed a camera there, you violated people's privacy, and broke the Protection of Privacy Law.

"Voting in the polling booth itself was not filmed, only the common area in which the election committee operates. Everything in the project was done in accordance with the law."

But it's forbidden to film people without their knowledge even in the common area of the polling station. That's a violation of privacy under the law.

"Everything that was done was done according to law. Shiloh Adler was in charge of the project on behalf of the campaign, and he arranged the matter with the police."

You have advance, written confirmation from the police that you are allowed to do this?

"You have to ask Shiloh, let's get him on the line. I've checked this matter many times."

At this stage of the interview, Golan phones Shiloh Adler, former head of the Yesha Council, who had a senior position on the Likud campaign staff and as an advisor to Netanyahu. Shiloh confirms in the telephone conversation that the operation was legal and that it was given a permit from the police in advance.

"It's more than legal," says Adler in the call, "it was meant to help implement democracy. If only there was a camera at every polling station in the country and people were trustworthy. Our aim was not to reduce the rate of participation, but to reduce the quantity of fraudulent votes."

People knew in advance that they were entering a filmed polling station? Did you place a sign outside: "You are about to enter a filmed zone"?

Adler: "Whoever needed to know in the framework of the law, knew about it. There was coordination with the legal authorities. The filming was in the election committee area and not in the polling booth, and since the election committee members are allowed to film themselves, it was in order. Between what the law forbids and what the law allows, there's a gap, and we fell into this gap, and so there was no need to place signs outside informing people that they were being documented. We hope to close this gap in the future. It's clear to us that preventing fraud is not just something for the Arab population. The government will need to pass full legislation stipulating that there should be a camera recording every polling station, because it's a matter of wholesale fraud at the level of tens of thousands of votes, and in this context the fact that in 2015 the Arabs reached 13 seats stems from voting fraud."

Did the police know in advance that this was what the Likud was going to do?

"Whoever needed to know, knew. We didn't do it on our own, and we didn't do it in the dark."

I don't understand. The Likud called the chief of police and informed him in advance that this was what you were going to do?

At this point, Adler and Golan chose to end the conversation.

What Golan and Adler don't want to talk about is that on the morning of the election, April 9, a video clip was leaked of one of the Likud activists at a polling station in an Arab community who was "caught" with a body camera and was asked to stop recording what was happening in the area of the election committee. This video clip was leaked to the media (to Ynet) by the Likud. Someone in the Likud wanted everyone in Israel, and in the Arab community in particular, to understand the scale of the project: 1,300 cameras recording suspicions of voter fraud.

I maintain that what you did in the 2019 campaign went beyond ensuring a clean election. You knew that the Arab population in Israel is very sensitive to monitoring and to being filmed, and you hoped that this move would lead to what they call in the US "voter suppression," as they did to African Americans decades ago to cause them not to vote. I also maintain that you knew that this was a matter of invasion of privacy and a criminal offence.

Golan: "I don't accept your claim. Our aim was to prevent fraud, and not to deter anyone from voting. It's a lofty aim: to engage, to act in order to ensure that the democratic process is carried out properly. It's a service to the citizen. We should be awarded a medal for good citizenship."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 20, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Ofer Golan  photo: Cadit Levy
Ofer Golan photo: Cadit Levy
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