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Pandemic politicking: Israel's election sprint echoes US's

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Associated Press

In this Feb. 4, 2021 file photo, Israelis receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from medical professionals at a coronavirus vaccination center set up on a shopping mall parking lot in Givataim, Israel. Candidates hoping to topple Benjamin Netanyahu in next months election are looking to the U.S. experience of 2020 for lessons about campaigning during a pandemic. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

JERUSALEM – In Israel, the sprint to the March 23 election is striking a notable resemblance to the American presidential brawl in 2020.

Candidates are holding virtual events or limited in-person gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some have signed up star U.S. advisers who faced off against each other during the contest between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and the Democrat who defeated him, President Joe Biden.

As in the United States, the Israeli race is a referendum on the divisive personality at the top and his stewardship of a nation brutalized by COVID-19.

Many Americans saw the choice as Trump — or almost anyone else. In Israel, the field is divided between those who are for or against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Where Trump had, “Make America Great Again,” Netanyahu implores people to, “Come back to life."

The question of moral authority, too, is a common theme. As president, Trump stood accused of a multitude of wrongdoing, including sexual misconduct against more than a dozen women (he denies all of them), questions about his taxes and serial problems telling the truth. Netanyahu last week pleaded not guilty to charges of breach of trust, fraud and accepting bribes.

Both men have cast themselves as victims.

“It's almost verbatim,” said Alon Pinkas, Israel's former consul general in New York. "They're both victims of a 'witch hunt,' both running an entire campaign about how ‘They’re out to get me. And if they're out to get me, they're out to get you.'"

But there is a key difference. While Trump suffered a solid defeat in November, Netanyahu remains Israel's most popular politician and has a strong chance of continuing his 12-year reign.

That stems in part from the two countries' vastly different populations and government systems. The U.S. is home to nearly 330 million people; Israel has just over 9 million. America is a democratic republic, where voters choose both the president and members of Congress on Election Day. Israel holds national elections where an array of political parties compete for proportionally awarded seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset.

Since no individual party has ever won a 61-seat majority on its own, that generates relentless coalition-building to form a government.

Netanyahu's Likud party is projected in all opinion polls to emerge as the largest party in the March election. But his hopes of cobbling together a government have been complicated by his legal woes, with a growing number of parties refusing to serve under a prime minister accused of serious crimes. In December, a delicate governing coalition between Netanyahu and his arch-rival collapsed after just seven months, sending the country to its fourth vote in two years.

Netanyahu — unlike his close ally Trump — has taken the virus seriously and made Israel's vaccination campaign the centerpiece of his reelection bid.

Late last year, he personally negotiated what has become the world's speediest coronavirus vaccination drive. As of Tuesday, nearly half of the population had received a first dose of vaccine. Nearly one-third have been inoculated twice and the level of severe infections and deaths has begun to decline.

But other parts of Netanyahu's management of the pandemic have come under heavy criticism. Like Trump's key allies, a bloc of Netanyahu's core supporters, the ultra-Orthodox, are flouting safety guidelines and attending mass events in defiance of the virus threat. Public anger is pronounced, with thousands of protesters gathering outside his residence each week or toting black flags on bridges and overpasses. They want Netanyahu to step down over his legal woes and the deep economic damage caused by a series of lockdowns over the past year.

In a break from Israeli tradition, Netanyahu's toughest opponents are not retired generals but former journalists. Three party leaders are former TV commentators and a fourth opponent, Gideon Saar, is married to one of the country's most famous news anchors.

These media-savvy personalities, backed in some cases by American strategists, have waged impressive pandemic politicking.

Lesson No. 1: Learn effective virtual campaigning, cross-post those events on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and weave them with relentless social media campaigns.

Netanyahu, educated in the U.S. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and deeply familiar with American politics, last month named Philadelphia native Aaron Klein his campaign manager. Klein, 40, is a former U.S. radio show host and ex-Jerusalem bureau chief for Breitbart News. He was appointed by the site’s executive chairman at the time, Steven Bannon, who would later become a key strategist to Trump.

The prime minister also has brought back longtime American adviser John McLaughlin, whose banner photo atop his Twitter feed features him shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump. Netanyahu used similar images in recent campaigns. But with Biden in office, he has played down the Trump connection this time around.

Saar, a onetime ally of Netanyahu, is challenging the prime minister now from the right. Last month, he hired several founders of the Lincoln Project — perhaps the best-known anti-Trump group of the 2020 election — that drew Republican voters away from the president by attacking his moral authority. The group is now grappling with allegations over how it handled charges of sexual misconduct of one founder, John Weaver, who has resigned. On Tuesday, Saar's campaign said it was re-evaluating its ties with the group.

The moral questions raised against Trump are similar to Saar’s message as head of the New Hope, the party he founded when he broke away from Netanyahu's Likud.

Saar shares the prime minister's hard-line nationalist ideology — he's a strong proponent of West Bank settlements and favors their eventual annexation. But he's trying to create a contrast with Netanyahu, who he said has turned Likud into a “cult of personality," familiar rhetoric to anyone listening to Trump's various opponents.

Saar also is making civility and decency a centerpiece of his campaign, reminiscent of Biden's approach against Trump. In an AP interview, Saar said he was “in a better position" than Netanyahu to have a positive relationship with Biden.

Another Netanyahu challenger, Yair Lapid, is partnering with prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. The Times of Israel reported that Lapid flew to the U.S. last month to meet personally with his longtime ally.

“The situation here in Israel is crazy,” Lapid, a former anchorman, said several times during a virtual town hall Feb. 9. “We can have a prime minister with integrity."

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Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman