Army of foreign strategists shaping Israel's election campaign slogans
Likud chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu's Russian campaign advisers were the first to notice that immigrant voters were flocking away from Kadima, once they realized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not coming back.
Netanyahu's people see his decision to allocate a significant part of his campaign budget for the offensive on the Russian vote - and his contract with the Russian advisers - as a brainstorm. They advised him to intensify the aggressive campaign against Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom they define as the Kadima's soft underbelly as far as the Russian community is concerned.
We have become familiar with American election advisers on the local scene, starting with the work of polls expert Arthur Finkelstein for Bibi in 1996. However, Russian advisers are a novelty.
Not that Netanyahu has given up the Americans' services entirely. He still consults with John McLaughlin, the Republican Party's political strategist and Arnold Schwarzenegger's adviser in his campaign for governor.
Unlike the Russian advisers, who come to Israel several days a week, McLaughlin communicates mainly by telephone. The Russians, headed by Dr. Alexei Sitnikov, may be seen wearing business suits going into work meeting at the Likud's propaganda headquarters in Tel Aviv. Sitnikov's advantage is a keen sense of smell, which works best when he analyzes the polls and focus group results, Netanyahu's people say.
Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas also work with foreign campaign strategists. Meanwhile, the Americans are in the lead. Yisrael Beiteinu's leader Avigdor Lieberman has Finkelstein, Labor chairman MK Amir Peretz has Stanley Fischer and Jeremy Rosner, while Shas' Eli Yishai consults with Michel Abu Jedid, a religious French Jew who has become his confidant.
In addition to being a status symbol, the foreign advisers' advantage over the Israelis lies in analyzing studies and opinion polls, the Israeli campaign advisers admit.
"They have worked on dozens of election campaigns and have experience from all over the world and the ability to analyze data more scientifically and less on the basis of gut feeling," a large party's strategist says. However, the foreign consultants' expertise also extends to campaign advice and the candidate's image.
Rosner has become very close to Peretz, who has a reputation for being difficult with advisers. He managed to persuade Peretz to put on a suit and tie, something Peretz refused to do when his Israeli advisers suggested it.
Peretz now adheres to his "campaign discipline" and speaks only from a written text. This is intended to build up his image as a premiership candidate, since it transpired that parts of the public have difficulty seeing him as such.
Greenberg was the one who pointed out that a large part of Labor's voters who abandoned the party were middle class Ashkenazis. Consequently the staff headed by Lova Eliav was set up to bring them back, as well as other field work.
Abu Jedid, like Sitnikov, is a mysterious figure. His initial encounter with Yishai was mediated by French Chief Rabbi Yosef Sitruk. A real estate man, Abu Jedid arrives in Israel every week and spends time in Shas' headquarters in Jerusalem. Shas sources say his influence is felt in every part of the campaign. They say Abu Jedid advised Yishai to appear at the bus campaign sans suit and tie, since the message on fighting poverty would appear insincere in smart attire.
Yishai is amused by the mysterious power people attribute to the French adviser. "I hear several advisers and him too, then decide myself," he says.
Yisrael Beiteinu take pride in nabbing Finkelstein, who worked with Netanyahu and Sharon, from under Sharon's people's noses. Finkelstein likes simple campaigns and sharp messages. The slogan "Lieberman - playing it safe" was chosen after Finkelstein concluded that Lieberman's ace would be reinstating the sense of personal safety.
Lieberman is also believed to be behind Lieberman's softer, more at ease image, in contrast to the image of the bully Vladimir, in the TV satire A Wonderful Country. The polls are indicating that this is the right direction - Yisrael Beiteinu has been growing consistently stronger.
The foreign advisers Stanley Greenberg served as Ehud Barak's adviser in his 1999 campaign for prime minister, and also advised Tony Blair. His partner Jeremy Rosner spends most of his time in Israel. He previously advised Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton, and led the campaign to add Poland and Hungary to the NATO alliance. Michel Abu Jedid, Yishai's mysterious adviser, was - according to Shas sources - Chirac's adviser for Jewish issues in the elections. He also helped Yishai .
Vladimir Sitnikov, a psychologist, advised Russian president Boris Yeltsin, conducted campaigns in Georgia, Kazakhstan and Bolivia, and took part in some 300 campaigns since 1989.
Two advisers work with him. Their job is to realize the immigrants' potential to vote for the Likud.
Finkelstein, the man who invented the slogan "Peres will divide Jerusalem," helped Netanyahu and Likud win the 1996 election. He also worked with Sharon in 2001 on the campaign for prime minister.