BOSTON – Arthur Finkelstein, who masterminded the political merger between Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman ahead of the upcoming Israeli election, likes to keep a low profile – so low, in fact, that it took more than two decades in the political-consulting business for his photo to be published in the press.
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The Republican powerhouse consultant, whose campaigns have helped shape first the American political landscape (he’s the guy who made “liberal” a bad word) and more recently the Israeli one, has been derided as Machiavellian and the “Godfather of dirty politics” by critics.
He was left bruised in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, having forecasted a handy Romney victory to his Israeli clients – now collectively dubbed “Bieberman.” The morning after the vote likely came as a rude and unwelcome awakening to them.
But recent stumbles notwithstanding and despite his dastardly reputation among political foes, Finkelstein is described by the small coterie of political consultants and associates who count him as a mentor and friend as a warm, affable and even easy-going personality who possesses a genius tactician’s talent for anticipating all possible moves and countermoves.
“He is a mystery to many people who don’t work with him,” said Jon Lerner, founder of Red Sea LLC, a political advertising and polling consultancy. “I’ve worked with Arthur Finkelstein since the mid-1990s off and on and he’s terrific to work with. He’s very good. Very smart,” Lerner said.
Another collaborator is Larry Weitzner, CEO of political consulting firm Jamestown Associates, who also defends Finkelstein. “He’s tough but ethical,” he said. “He prefers to work behind the scenes and let the candidate do the talking, unlike other [consultants] who prefer to be Fox TV stars,” Weitzner said.
Finkelstein, 67, a gay Jewish Republican, was outed by Boston magazine in 1996. The news had opponents gloating that Finkelstein was a hypocrite. Among his clients at the time were several politicians with staunchly anti-gay rights records. He’s also credited with helping re-elect a conservative icon, South Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1996, with the message that his rival had ties to homosexual supporters.
In 2005, Finkelstein, who helped elect those opposed to gay marriage, made headlines when he married his partner of 40 years in Massachusetts.
At the time he was also working to try to defeat Hillary Clinton in her Senate reelection campaign under the slogan "Stop Her Now." The site aimed to "shed light on the real Hillary Clinton and the danger she and her ideas pose for America."
"We're out to expose her as a confirmed left-wing radical and life-long liberal who long ago sold her soul to the divisive, radical and ultra-liberal special interest groups who see everyone as 'victims' and want to use your tax dollars and the power of the state to make things right," the campaign's website said.
Bill Clinton, coming to his wife’s defense also took a jab at Finkelstein. "He went to Massachusetts and married his longtime male partner and then he comes back here and announces this,” Clinton said at a news conference. “I thought, one of two things. Either this guy believes his party is not serious, and is totally Machiavellian in his position, or there’s some sort of self-loathing there.”
Finkelstein, the Brooklyn-born son of a taxi driver, combines street-fighter smarts with messaging that viscerally connects with voters.
In Israel’s 1996 election when he first worked for Netanyahu and helped bring him to power, the winning message was, “[Shimon] Peres will divide Jerusalem.”
“He has amazing political instincts, a real talent for cutting through noise and boiling down any given political situation to a few bare essentials that are inherently telegenic. He prefers to look at situations and political problems in black and white. I think he really sees them like this - and [he] develops his research instruments and strategic interpretation accordingly,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political pollster and consultant based in Tel Aviv who has worked with him on national campaigns in Eastern Europe.
“It’s a totally different work style than I'm used to," she continued. "[Finkelstein] rejects focus groups, uses broad templates for surveys and mainly just some tweaks for different campaigns, hardly writes anything but communicates to clients in person and verbally. So it's a very light, streamlined work style, with a small staff.”
Lerner, who has worked on several U.S. Senate races with Finkelstein, said his focus on winning, however, does not compromise his ethics.
“He’s very motivated by things he believes in and the interests of his clients. One of the greatest pieces of evidence is that there are few political consultants in America who have been as successful for as long as he has been despite that he is very far from being a household name,” said Lerner. “Unlike most people from our business, Arthur is not into self-promotion. He lets his winning claims have the spotlight.”
Finkelstein's low-profile nature also has extended to the American Jewish community. He has strong ties with pro-Israel officials he helped elect, including Jewish Republican politicians; privately, he has some close relationships with American Jewish community leaders, but those relationships also tend to be behind the scenes in keeping with his general style, observers say.
Recently, he gave a rare television interview. Last month he told Channel 2 that the new joint Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list is likely garner a large number of seats – some 45 together – after January’s election.
“I have believed for several years that such a union is a good move,” Finkelstein said in the interview. “Separately, Netanyahu and Lieberman have a similar electorate and each will contribute something to the other – together they are much more powerful.”
It is precisely the prospects of that kind of mega power that has members of Israel’s center and left concerned, not to mention even those in the more moderate camp within Likud. Foreign Minister Lieberman has made his mark as one of Israel’s more polarizing political personalities with a penchant for rousing distrust of the country’s Arab citizens and pushing legislation that many within Israel view as anti-democratic.
Finkelstein is betting his new duo fares better than his client back home named Mitt Romney.