Sefi Shaked was born 46 years ago in Tel Aviv (Israel). He is a specialist in political communication and has conducted dozens of campaigns in various parts of the globe. A decade ago, for example, he worked with Benjamin Netanyahu and, in 2018, he was a consultant to Salome Zourabichvili, the first woman to become head of state in a country in the Caucasus (Georgia). He has lived in Cascais for three years – he says that Portugal is his second homeland -, he carefully follows national politics and admits to seeing potential in several protagonists. Even in the most controversial…
How do you think Netanyahu is handling the corruption charges?
The 2009 Netanyahu is not today’s Netanyahu. If we look over time, we can share the criticisms. It has a very good evaluation when it comes to external relations, to position Israel as a power, it has made peace with the Gulf countries… In a world where leaders are strong, they are bullies, most Israelis will be happy to have someone like him. Internally, it is performing poorly and making many mistakes.
It is dividing people. There were two ways to lead when Covid-19 started. He could have been the father of the nation, the person to whom everyone would turn, the adult, and stopped talking about the trial, the accusations… I advised him, Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the biggest newspapers in Israel, two months ago, shaving his hair (because the media are always making fun of his hairstyle), waking up at 6am, gathering the most intelligent entrepreneurs and technology and development men and find solutions for the economy and Covid. I advised him to bring people together and say “I am fighting the virus, there are no Jews or Arabs, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, rich or poor, left or right”. Israel is too small for Trump to behave.
Is Netanyahu able to remain prime minister?
He continues to have 29% of the vote intentions. The second, Naftali Bennett, is at 20% and growing. I don’t know what to expect, but I am very disappointed with this division and what makes me like Portugal even more is that, with political quarrels, with Covid, people were together and the opposition was more cooperative than in most countries .
Would it be preferable for the country to go to elections or, at least, for Likud to find new leadership?
If it were normal times, there would be no alternative to new elections. Right now, when we have eight thousand cases diagnosed per day, out of a population of nine million, I don’t see any conditions for that.
Do you attach any value to the fact that Israel has been recognized by two other Arab states (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), further isolating Iran and the Shiites?
Yes, it is quite an achievement, but considering the terrible crisis at Covid and the economy, it is like a beautiful woman putting lipstick on the Titanic.
Do you believe that Netanyahu will suspend the settlement of settlements in the West Bank, as promised?
Neither Netanyahu knows what he is going to do about it. For his behavior, he will do whatever is appropriate to his interests. And note that I am not telling Israel’s interests.
In a campaign in Israel, what are the themes you most focus on? Safety, security and security?
Yes, yes and yes! Any Israeli child hears sirens on Holocaust Remembrance Day and has to get up to honor the six million Jews killed. Two weeks later, there is the Day of Remembrance of Soldiers … Since you are born, you are educated on the assumption that you are in danger, all Jewish families have relatives who died in the war. And, of course, we have the nation’s history – Israel was founded in 1948, it was attacked, it almost lost to Egypt and Syria in 1973, it had terrorist attacks everywhere. Therefore, security is a big issue. The left has always been considered weaker when it comes to security because it is more liberal, less fanatical, which is why the right has been winning.
And the other themes?
The economy is very important. Prices in Israel are terribly high and wages are not. Let’s say the average salary is double the average salary in Portugal, but the prices are five times higher. I would prefer to be a Portuguese man to earn 800 euros than an Israeli to earn 2 000. Unfortunately, because security is such a pressing issue, nobody votes to think about the economy.
Is that Netanyahu’s secret, the security discourse?
He has some secret weapons. He is one of the most intelligent leaders I have met and is a great speaker. It guarantees a lot of international respect for Israel, excluding the last three months. And the brother, who was a special forces and lost his life in Uganda in 1976, was killed like a hero [numa missão no aeroporto de Entebbe]. So when you see in the news, all the time, that someone was stabbed or that there was a terrorist attack, most Israelis go to the right. They do not understand that a peaceful solution is perhaps a better alternative.
Do you believe that this effect occurs in Western Europe or the USA?
Western Europe and the USA deserve completely different answers. In Europe, because of the immigration flow, the growth of social networks and the remnants of economic problems, we see populism growing. In Israel, we feel that we are in a state of war permanently. All Israelis have special cell phone alerts, equivalent to the Morning mail. The taxi driver is driving and you see “Someone was stabbed”, “An assault there”… There are nine million people connected to a feed, to a succession of events; if there is a scandal, everyone will talk about it. Everyone is in the same narrative. It is very easy to control and manipulate opinion in Israel.
Does it make sense for world leaders to bet so much on social media and abdicate traditional media?
There is something beautiful about the fact that the leaders communicate with the people without intermediation, but there are points of concern, because the media are the guardians of democracy and already only report what is happening to a part of the population. More people see Facebook than they read your magazine. We would never have Bolsonaro or Trump as leaders if it weren’t for social media. Ten, 15 years ago, we were voting to elect a Parliament, a President and also in reality shows; now, we vote every day with likes. Who wants to go to the polls? And in our feed, we find mostly people who think like us, we have no other perspectives. Social networks are the biggest change that has happened to the world. They started well, but we are seeing their dark side.
In Portugal, there is an ubiquitous populist leader on social media. In addition, PSD President Rui Rio refuses to give interviews to newspapers and magazines and is always tweeting. What kind of risks does this option entail?
In terms of social networks, Portugal is much better than most countries. There is something in the country that I admire: the Portuguese do not let themselves be carried away by bullshit talk. Portugal is too small for fake news. You are more calm, relaxed, it is very difficult to irritate a Portuguese. I don’t see a danger as a Trump going to vote and round up 60% of people through social media. On the other hand, I see many politicians here underutilizing or not using the networks at all. For example, the President: I see him in Cascais all the time, shaking hands with people, it’s fantastic, but if I were working with him, I would want to translate this incredible popular campaign, which I had never seen anywhere , for social networks, because time is limited. We find 100 people a day and we can do that with a million people a day on the internet. If this guy, if Marcelo had invested in social networks the same as he invested in outreach actions, in public relations or going to the beach, he could reach 70%, 72% in the presidential ones.
Is there a party that you didn’t work with in Portugal?
I don’t know enough to say. I think that all parties here can improve. It seems to me that all campaigns are based on the intuition of the candidates, rather than on monitoring social networks and appropriate studies. See Chega. Him [Ventura] mobilized its base up to 9%, 10%, but it seems that it has reached the maximum. I should stop using narratives about abortion, racism and misogyny – with which I would never collaborate, for exceeding my limits – and be more anti-establishment. I should talk more about security issues. If I were Chega, 90% of my messages would be about how to help the cops earn twice as much and would make each Portuguese, before pressing the button to activate their night alarm, think of Chega. Then, the other 5%, 10% would be on doctors’ salaries, on corruption …
I could take in Ana Gomes and win the presidential elections?
Looking at the numbers, it would be very presumptuous to say that I would win, but I would be able to add 5% or 10% to her vote easily, just by improving technical questions on social media and with a study: who is your base, what should we tell you to keep them mobilized and who are those who don’t think to vote for her now, but who, if she says the right thing, will be able to vote.
Wouldn’t it be prudent to say to Trump “get off the internet, let someone run the networks”?
Trump is one of the world’s leading social media experts. Anyone who replaced him would not be so good. As they said in the 2016 campaign, let Trump be Trump. What are the rules of social media in his case? Entertain, become part of the daily routine of your base. Ventura’s base, when he opens Facebook, wants to see what he said that day, is like a soap opera. Even enemies love to see what’s going on.
We are reducing politics to entertainment.
It’s one of the problems … In fact, even before social media, we could see celebrities like Ronald Reagan being elected. As Roger Stone, a US campaign manager, said, politics is show business for ugly people. And now, some of them are even very similar [risos]!…
If you worked with Trump, would you insist on the bipolarization of society, based on ethnic issues?
I would refuse to work with Trump for exactly those reasons. Now, I would advise Biden to do something completely different from what he is doing.
As well? One of the weaknesses pointed out to him is the lack of charisma.
He strives to be Bill Clinton of 1992, using expressions like “Yeah, man!”, And it doesn’t work … He’s trying to be cool and you can’t. It can be seen as a lack of charisma, I see it as inadequate management. The guy is the most boring thing we can see in the feed. If I were your campaign manager, I would go through with this annoyance, because the US was boring before Trump, Covid and the riots. I would hide it until the election, all my TV spots would be about 2025, with the beach in Malibu, people without masks, everything quiet and then “Biden: because the USA deserves a bored president”. Biden’s campaign is worse than Hillary’s, and Biden is a worse candidate than Hillary.
What was the secret to getting a woman, Salome Zourabichvili, to become the first head of state in a country in the Caucasus?
It was showing her true personality, emphasizing the advantages of electing a woman, especially in Georgia, highlighting that she was familiar with the Government in office, which was better than the previous one, and we did it in three weeks …
Which Portuguese politician would you most like to work with?
He would only be able to respond after meeting the politicians.
Don’t you know any?
I know one, my friend Ricardo [Baptista] Milk, but all those I heard about are interesting: Ana Gomes, for her history and for being a great challenge to transform her success in the domain of social networks and in the transmission of the right message. Marcelo, who seems like a good guy, because it would be fun to convert this love from the streets to social networks. As for Ventura, there is a question mark. If he is misogynist and racist, I would not work with him; if it isn’t and has been labeled that way – I don’t know enough – then there’s a strategic challenge: getting it off the fringes and optimizing it for a more mainstream. However, with this type we have to be extremely cautious.
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