Israeli elections used to be serious affairs. Each party would prepare a weighty manifesto early in the campaign, detailing its various policies. Campaign rallies and meetings were drawn-out, with candidates delivering hour-long ideological speeches. Political ads on television sought to educate viewers on the parties' opposing world-views. All of that changed in 1996.
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Two things changed Israeli politics. The first was the short-lived experiment with direct elections for prime minister, pitting Benjamin Netanyahu against Shimon Peres in 1996. Direct elections were abandoned six years later, but by then the focus had shifted decisively from party platforms and ideology to personality. The second change in Israeli politics was Netanyahu’s decision to hire a foreign advisor for his campaign.
Arthur Finkelstein who passed away today (Saturday) in Massachusetts was the first foreign strategist to take charge of an Israeli political campaign. There were a handful of foreign pollsters and television producers who served as advisors in the past, but no one had ever dreamt of giving a non-Israeli the last word in a campaign. Handing the reins to some who didn’t speak Hebrew, had never taken part in an Israeli campaign and wasn’t even planning to spend the entire time in the country (Finkelstein would fly over for a few days at a time and made a point of never being around on Election Day itself) was unthinkable. But Netanyahu was running an unthinkable campaign already, trying to overcome a 30-point deficit in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the wave of sympathy towards Rabin’s successor, Peres, and many Israelis' anger toward Netanyahu who they saw as the source of incitement against the slain prime minister.
Netanyahu needed every edge he could find in those elections. The $1000-an-hour strategist who had by then spent two and a half decades overseeing Republican and conservative candidates' campaigns, in many cases hopeless candidates who had come from nowhere to challenge secure Democratic incumbents, often winning, would be one of his edges. Finkelstein’s strategy was based on polling-based research to locate hot-button issues on which the rival was weak and hammering away at them with short repetitive ads, sometime only ten seconds long.
After conducting a series of polls in early 1996, he settled on a message for Netanyahu’s campaign which was simple and devastating – Fear and Peace. Peres would be blamed for delivering more terror attacks while Netanyahu’s slogan would be “Making a secure peace.” To hack away at Peres’ credibility Finkelstein chose the Jerusalem issue. It was a false accusation – Jerusalem’s future had not yet been seriously negotiated with the Palestinians, but it didn’t matter. Repeat the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” enough times and it would stick.
When the ads Finkelstein crafted for Netanyahu’s campaign first aired, most Israeli election strategists were incredulous. They were short, simplistic and monochrome – dark glass shattering, giving way to a blurry photograph of Peres and Arafat together. Netanyahu was shown with light colors in the background and a dove of peace. His messages were upbeat, describing “our wonderful country,” a sharp contrast to the doom and gloom reserved for Peres in the Likud ads.
Netanyahu had other edges that helped close the gap – a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks that eroded support for the Oslo process, anger among Arab voters following the death of Lebanese civilians in Operation Grapes of Wrath, Labor’s own hapless campaign and the “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” campaign, launched in the last days before the election by Chabad, without Finkelstein’s involvement. But even with all these advantages, Netanyahu won by a wafer thin one-percent margin of 29, 457 votes. Finkelstein on his own hadn’t won, but without his relentless campaign, chipping away at Peres’ credibility, Netanyahu would not have crossed the finish line and would almost certainly have been deposed after an election loss by his rivals within Likud.
Six months after Rabin’s murder, Finkelstein saved Netanyahu’s career and changed Israeli politics forever. From then on, all the parties moved to short snappy messages and negative campaigning.
Finkelstein’s services remained in high demand. Netanyahu was his first campaign outside North America. He would expand to Europe and continued work in Israel. Despite his fearsome reputation, he was no magician. He ran Netanyahu’s campaign in 1999, which ended in a 12-point defeat to Ehud Barak. He then was victorious in 2001 and 2003 with Ariel Sharon and helped Nir Barkat to victory in the Jerusalem municipal elections in 2008. In the 2013 Knesset elections, he convinced Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman to unite Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, promising them that by running on one joint list, they would win more votes. It was ruinous advice. Likud-Beiteinu lost eleven seats form the total the two parties held in the previous Knesset. But by then, nearly every other Israeli party had its Finkelstein, importing the latest campaign strategies from abroad.
Arthur Finkelstein will be remembered in his homeland for managing an almost unparalleled number of political campaigns over four decades and mentoring a generation of Republican operatives, but he never took charge of the big one – a presidential race. It was in Israel that he changed the way elections are fought and helped change the course of the country’s history.