As American voters head to the polls, they are already facing obstacles well known to observers of Israel’s elections.
In recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump has called on his followers to “watch the polls” for suspected foul play by the Democratic Party — and they have answered his call. In Virginia last month, for example, a group of Trump supporters impeded access to a polling site. Just last week, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar raised concerns over a contractor who was recruiting poll watchers in her state, specifically seeking people with “special forces experience.”
This campaign, which is sparking fears of election violence, is not based on real concerns over transparency: it is a tactic designed to discourage Trump opponents from voting at all.
Poll watchers have been employed for decades by both Democrats and Republicans (most states have laws regulating them), and all states have laws forbidding intimidation of voters — crucial legislation given the long history of voter suppression in the United States, particularly targeting Black voters. But Trump’s courting of militias, combined with a disinformation campaign around voting fraud, has set the stage for potential chaos at polling sites.
While the tactics may differ, this strategy should be familiar to Israeli voters, who witnessed the attempts by Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu to deter Palestinian citizens from voting in the 2019-2020 elections. Most infamous was the installation of cameras in polling stations in Palestinian towns and neighborhoods, intended to deter voters. A group of right-wing Jewish Israelis also put up billboards deceptively calling on Palestinian citizens to boycott the elections.
The similarities between the two countries are no coincidence. In an op-ed in Haaretz this month, Srulik Einhorn, a strategic consultant for Netanyahu during the last series of elections, explicitly defended voter suppression tactics, stressing that a depressed turnout would benefit Trump. “The ethics of a Do Not Go Out to Vote campaign are no different from a classic Get Out the Vote campaign,” Einhorn wrote. “Present the facts as you see them.”
Einhorn spent little time trying to build that ethical case, underscoring the emptiness of his argument. But the fact that he makes this case at all, and that he made it only in the English version of Haaretz, speaks volumes about the shared strategy — and similar advocates — between the Israeli and American right.
Einhorn was responding, in part, to a report by the U.K.’s Channel 4 News which revealed that, during the 2016 presidential race, the Trump campaign assembled a list of some 3.5 million Black voters and targeted them for “deterrence.” That is, they used targeted social media campaigns to make these voters despair of a future with Hillary Clinton as president — not in the hope of getting them to vote for Trump, but with the aim of convincing them not to vote at all. Einhorn, for his part, wrote approvingly of the Trump campaign’s “very successful” effort to depress the turnout among Black voters in Wisconsin — a state the president won by just 0.77 percent.
According to the Channel 4 report, Cambridge Analytica — the now-defunct British consulting firm that harvested huge amounts of personal information from Facebook, resulting in a major scandal — was part of a “team” working with the Trump campaign to target voters they felt they could discourage from voting. So who else might have been involved?
Marketing intelligence tactics
The answer to that question remains opaque, but an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee into the Trump campaign’s activities in 2016 raises some possibilities.
The Committee’s report, the fifth volume of which was released in August, looked closely at a now-defunct Israeli firm called Psy-Group, whose chief executive officer in 2016 was Royi Burstien, a lieutenant colonel (res.) in Israeli military intelligence.
Burstien used his expertise to create fake social media “avatars” — online personas which were originally used to find and head off militants planning attacks — that would send manipulative messages out to targeted audiences. Burstien marketed his avatars to governments and wealthy people for political purposes, including to key figures targeting BDS activists on U.S. campuses. According to one report, “Burstien boasted that Psy-Group’s so-called ‘deep’ avatars were so convincing that they were capable of planting the seeds of ideas in people’s heads.”
That sort of behavior raised concerns that techniques employed by foreign intelligence services were being marketed outside of Israel. This should be a problem for Israel’s Defense Export Control Agency to address, but the agency claims that Psy-Group has never appeared on their lists of activities that needed monitoring.
A former senior Shin Bet official, Dr. Avner Barnea, told the Times of Israel that the agency should have been monitoring Psy-Group. “The people in the Defense Export Control Agency are not serious, unfortunately,” he told the site. “They’re bureaucrats who lack technological understanding. They should have checked if Psy-Group was using knowledge or technology it acquired in the military.”
George Birnbaum, a prominent Republican strategist and former chief of staff for Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Senate committee, “These guys [at Psy-Group] came out of the military intelligence army unit, and it’s like coming out with a triple Ph.D. from MIT. The amount of knowledge these guys have in terms of cybersecurity, cyber-intelligence… they come out of a unit in which their minds in terms of understanding cybersecurity… [are] just so beyond what you could get [with] a normal education that it’s just unique.”
That would seem to leave little doubt as to where Psy-Group got its knowledge.
The Senate Intelligence Committee was unable to find any evidence that Psy-Group had ever done any actual work for the Trump campaign, and Psy-Group founder Joel Zamel emphatically denied ever having worked for them. Yet Zamel did attend an infamous meeting at Trump Tower on August 3, 2016 with Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr. In January 2017, Zamel received a $2 million payment from Nader, for “something that shows social media’s impact on the election,” according to the Committee’s report.
Zamel was brought into that meeting by Lebanese-American lobbyist George Nader, a close adviser to the Emirati royal family who is currently in prison on various pedophilia charges. Nader and Zamel offered different explanations for the payment, and the Senate essentially gave up trying to untangle the knot they were presented with by these shady dealings.
Still, there is no question that both Zamel and Burstien had extensive contacts with the Trump campaign, and that at least once, presented their ideas to them. According to journalists Ronan Farrow and Adam Entous, however, then-Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said they had no need of Psy-Group’s services.
But Psy-Group had been brought to the Trump campaign’s attention earlier, by now-convicted felon Rick Gates, a deputy to Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has also been convicted of wrongdoing. Gates had been made aware of Psy-Group by George Birnbaum in the spring of 2016, and, according to the Senate report, had Birnbaum solicit a pitch from Psy-Group to influence Republican delegates and dig up opposition research on Hillary Clinton.
A shared value
All of this demonstrates a keen awareness in both the Trump and Netanyahu camps of similar voter suppression tactics. Psy-Group demonstrably shared their basic ideas with Trump’s people. It strains credulity to believe that Netanyahu’s campaign was unaware of the tactics that Psy-Group traffics in, when those very tactics were taught by IDF intelligence.
For example, Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, was an adviser to Psy-Group in their anti-BDS operation. Daniel Reisner, who has previously advised five Israeli prime ministers including Netanyahu, was also a partner in the firm that served as legal counsel for Psy-Group. And while we cannot know what sort of influence Psy-Group may have had in developing the Trump campaign’s voter suppression strategy, it is equally improbable that people like Rick Gates and George Birnbaum would have recommended Psy-Group without some basic knowledge of their tactics.
Looking back at Einhorn’s defense of voter suppression in Haaretz, it is worth noting that his justification would hold for conservative Democrats running against progressive challengers in primaries, and for party elections in Israel. Yet we do not see evidence of these parties employing the same tactics. This is not to say they would be above such behavior, but politically, it is simply a tactic that would be dangerous for them, while right-wing voters are more inclined to find merit in Einhorn’s view.
Israeli experts like Einhorn and former Netanyahu campaign manager Aron Shaviv market their skills to conservative leaders like David Cameron, autocrats like Aleksander Vucic of Serbia, and Trump himself. Shaviv’s strategies have helped not only Netanyahu, Cameron, and Vucic, but also Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, according to Human Rights Watch, has engaged in “extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association,” and other crimes. On the other hand, Shaviv also helped the campaign of Zazuna Capitova in Slovakia, a decidedly left-wing and progressive leader.
But whether we characterize these figures and groups as ideological or mercenary, the art of manipulation has become an election issue in the United States. The growth of anti-democratic policies and practices, of which voter suppression is emblematic, is just another shared value of the Israeli and American authoritarian right and their allies across the world. The upcoming election, with the massive spike in early voting, may be the point where citizens firmly reject those tactics.