Gantz Hires Hillary Clinton Aide Who Said She Shouldn't Publicly 'Call Out Israel'

In a debate over inclusion of statement supporting Israel in a draft of Clinton's 'home base talking points,' Joel Benenson said Israel shouldn't be mentioned 'in public events'

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, speaks at an election campaign event in Ashkelon, Israel April 3, 2019.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party has hired a former strategist for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in hopes of strengthening its campaign to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud in the upcoming September 17 election.

Joel Benenson is a leading Democratic strategist and pollster who served as a senior strategist for Obama's successful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, as well as being Hillary Clinton's chief strategist in 2016 when she lost to President Donald Trump.

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Benenson made headlines in Israel in 2016 when hacked emails released by WikiLeaks uncovered a debate between senior campaign figures as to whether Clinton should mention Israel at “public events” in the early stages of the campaign. Her staff ultimately determined that she should only specifically express support for Israel “when she’s with donors.”

>> Read more: Kahol Lavan goes AWOL | Editorial ■ Where does Hillary Clinton stand on Israel?

Benenson is the founder and CEO of the Benenson Strategy Group. His website boasts that he is “the only Democratic pollster in history to have played a leading role in three winning presidential campaigns” — the two Obama campaigns and President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort. The site features a long list of major corporations, NGOs and U.S. politicians as clients, but no previous foreign leaders.

Benenson will be replacing Mark Mellman, who announced his resignation in June. Mellman, a longtime strategic adviser to Yair Lapid, headed Kahol Lavan’s campaign in the April election when the party won 35 seats — the same number as the ruling Likud party.

In a 2015 debate over whether to include a statement of support for Israel in a draft of Clinton’s “home base talking points,” Benenson weighed in against mentioning Israel “in public events” during the primary battle.

The private exchange among the Clinton campaign staff in May 2015 became public as part of a dump of emails hacked by the Russian government from the account of Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and released by WikiLeaks.

In the online discussion of talking points, Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser, suggested they add a sentence about “standing up for our allies and our values, including Israel.”

In the ensuing discussion, it was Benenson who rejected the need to mention Israel at public events. “Why would we call out Israel in public events now? The only voters elevating FP [foreign policy] at all are Republican primary voters. To me we deal with this in stride when and if we are asked about FP,” Benenson wrote in an email.

Clinton’s director of speechwriting, Dan Schwerin, then suggested that the “base speech” remain free of talk of Israel and other specifics on foreign policy, referring more generally to protecting the U.S. “from the global threats that we see, from terrorists to dictators to diseases.

“Then,” he added, “she can drop in Israel when she’s with donors.”

Benenson agreed that it was “good.” 

Kahol Lavan did not respond to a Haaretz request for comment.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at Hunter College, New York, May 29, 2019.
Mary Altaffer,AP