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Big losers in Israeli election: American political strategists

The largest parties on both the left and right in Israel relied on US consultants to shape their campaigns, but analysts say foreign advising may no longer be a reliable strategy.

Two of the big losers in Israel’s parliamentary vote Tuesday were Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Labor Party of Shelly Yachimovich, with both underperforming initial polling expectations.

But a third big loser in the election might have been the two parties’ American campaign strategists. After playing MVP roles in Israeli elections since 1996, for the first time foreign consultants are being blamed for twin failures on opposite sides of the political spectrum, leaving questions about whether their expertise is necessary anymore.

“The American consultants didn’t do well here,” says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American pollster and strategic adviser.

Over the years US consultants have helped Israeli politicians translate polling and focus group data into effective marketing campaigns, an area in which they have traditionally floundered. 

Failures on the right

This time, however, the Americans have become lightning rods for criticism.   

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For instance, Arthur Finkelstein, an American veteran of conservative election campaigns around the world, helped Mr. Netanyahu to a first election victory 17 years ago by using the division of Jerusalem as a wedge issue against Israeli doves. But now he stands accused of mistakenly pushing for a joint campaign between Netanyahu’s Likud and the the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Instead of the combination boosting their support, the two parties dropped from a combined 42 seats to 31 in the 120-member Knesset. While the move ensured the prime minister finished far ahead of the field, his alliance with the secular Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu alienated much of Likud’s traditionalist base, leaving many in the party disgruntled over the campaign.

“It was a total failure. The combination with Lieberman deterred voters mentally and emotionally,” says Shlomo Madmon, a Likud Central Committee member. “Bibi [Netanyahu] decided to bring him here. I don’t know why.” 

George Birnbaum, a strategist who works with Mr. Finkelstein, conceded that the campaign ended in disappointment, but says it’s impossible to have a perfect record. He argues that internal polling showed a more favorable result as late as a week ago, and that no pollster predicted the meteoric rise of TV anchor Yair Lapid, who placed second and took votes from Likud.

Floundering on the left

On the other side of the spectrum, Stanley Greenberg, a veteran of presidential campaigns in the US, helped Ehud Barak defeat Mr. Netanyahu in 1999.

This time around, however, his work with the Labor party was not as fruitful – the party dropped from second place in the polls to a distant third in the final vote.

Ms. Yachimovich, the Labor leader, was criticized by analysts for running a campaign that ignored foreign affairs – undermining her claim to be prime minister material – and for not generating emotional excitement among her base. She also failed to effectively craft a message on the widespread socioeconomic malaise that she marked as her bread-and-butter issue after mass protests in 2011.

“They didn’t spark the imagination and didn’t stir passion,’’ says a communications adviser to a Labor party candidate, who declined to be named because the individual is not authorized to speak about the campaign. “Israelis liked Labor, but they didn’t like Shelly [Yachimovich].”

Before the election, Mr. Greenberg rebuffed an accusation that the socioeconomically-based campaign had failed in an interview with Israel Channel 2 news, saying “that’s not what our polling shows.” He did acknowledge that “elections are not social protests and have a different kind of energy.”  

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A success

Not every US consultant was linked to a disappointing campaign. The big winner of the election, former TV anchor Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, got advice from American strategist Mark Mellman, who predicted back in December that Israeli public opinion surveys were underestimating the appeal of his client.

“One of the few things that America still exports is democracy,” Mellman said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 news. “We have a lot of experience with elections…. We have a very practiced profession of political consulting.”

Eyal Arad, a veteran Israeli consultant, says it is unfair to blame the failed campaigns solely on who advised them. He said the Likud and Labor campaigns didn’t take cues from US strategists on building an effective get-out-the-vote effort.

However, after nearly two decades of learning from the Americans, Israeli strategists have raised their game and might be closing the gap with their US counterparts, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and strategist who worked with Greenberg on the Barak campaign in 1999.

The real problem this year, she added, could be that marketing Israel’s large traditional parties was harder amid an atmosphere of voter rebellion. That favored new and small parties over the establishment Labor and Likud.  

“Part of the problem of American consultants is that they are tied to big parties [because] the big parties can afford them,’’ Ms. Scheindlin says. “I can’t tell you they did anything wrong in strategy or tactics, but they are working for parties that are not positioned to win new votes. They are positioned to lose votes, because the Israeli people are fed up with them, both on the left and right side.”