Fighting Netanyahu and Ilhan Omar at the Same Time: The Strategist Working Both Israeli and U.S. Elections

Respected Democratic adviser Mark Mellman is simultaneously working to unseat Netanyahu while defending Israel against his critics in Washington. He explains how he performs his high-wire act

Mark Mellman. "One can be opposed to particular leaders and opposed to particular policies and still be very much a supporter of the country overall."
Courtesy of The Mellman Group

At a moment when both Israeli and U.S. politics are swirling at a furious rate, Mark Mellman finds himself in the eye of two storms.

The veteran D.C. pollster currently serves in dual roles that no single figure has occupied at the same time before. He is both a key campaign strategist for a major Israeli political party — Kahol Lavan — and at the helm of a new American pro-Israel organization: the Democratic Majority for Israel.

Ask Mellman whether working for a party trying to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem while defending Israel against Netanyahu’s critics in Washington might not be a recipe for a conflict of interest and he’ll give you a firm “no.”

“Millions of Israelis wake up every morning disagreeing with the policies of the Netanyahu administration and they are still pro-Israel,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview from Tel Aviv, where he has been spending much of his time in recent weeks as Election Day approaches.

“All of us Democrats wake up every morning in America disagreeing with almost all of the policies of the Trump administration. And we remain pro-America,” he says. “One can be opposed to particular leaders and opposed to particular policies and still be very much a supporter of the country overall. And that is certainly my view of Trump’s America and of Netanyahu’s Israel.”

Mellman is a longtime strategist, adviser and self-described “dear friend” of lawmaker Yair Lapid, half of the team leading Kahol Lavan. Lapid is the party’s No. 2 man: He would rotate into the position of prime minister after two and a half years, changing places with party leader Benny Gantz (if Kahol Lavan is lucky enough to win the April 9 election).

Mellman has been by Lapid’s side since the latter founded the Yesh Atid party in 2012 and saw it through its impressive 2013 showing; he was also part of the decision-making process when Lapid agreed to merge his party with Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael earlier this year.

In recent days, Mellman’s role has grown in importance as Israeli political insiders report that Lapid’s camp has assumed control from Gantz’s strategists and are now pushing the campaign’s message in a more aggressive direction.

Kahol Lavan No. 2 Yair Lapid. A "dear friend," says Mark Mellman, who is working on his party's election campaign.
Sraya Diamant

Mellman is no longer simply Lapid’s man. He is a key part of the team steering a major Israeli political party through the stormiest of campaigns as it is bashed from the right by Netanyahu and the left by Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay. Kahol Lavan must now walk a tightrope to draw voters from both center-left and center-right in order to have a chance at victory — and do so without alienating smaller parties it would need to put together a coalition.

No need to panic

An Israeli political candidate or party hiring a U.S. strategist like Mellman is not new. Since Netanyahu’s first victory in the hard-fought campaign of 1996, which he pulled off with help from his American strategic guru, the late Arthur Finkelstein, it has become common practice for major parties to bring in international know-how that can give them an edge.

Mellman is one of the most respected — and busiest — such consultants in U.S. politics. He and his staff of 12 at the Mellman Group run campaigns and conduct polls for a Who’s Who of senators, members of congress, nonprofit organizations, corporations and international clients. Mellman is also a frequent media commentator on the goings-on of the Democratic Party. Unlike many of his colleagues in the polling and strategy business, he works exclusively on one side of the aisle.

But in a fluke of timing, the gun for the 2019 Israeli campaign went off at the very moment Mellman was stepping into a new role outside the comfortable niche he has occupied for decades as a behind-the-scenes Democratic gun for hire.

On January 28, he made his debut as president and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, whose stated goal is to preserve the traditional support for Israel within the Democratic Party.

Its emergence comes as the progressive wing of the party and younger Democrats are rethinking the U.S.-Israel alliance as the Israeli government moves rightward and the ties between the Trump White House and Netanyahu remain close. This shift has been amplified by high profile members of Congress — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — openly questioning this union.

“The overwhelming majority of Democratic elected officials are strongly pro-Israel and we wanted to keep it that way,” Mellman says. Rejecting the notion that the relationship between Israel and the Democrats is nearing crisis level, he says the group was formed because “there were signs of potential future weaknesses, and the feeling was that it would be better to address those problems before they became a full-scale crisis.”

A billboard for Kahol Lavan in Ramat Gan, March 17, 2019. The slogan on the left says "The nation of Israeli lives," and on the right says "Kahane Lives," referencing the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane.
AFP

Despite the boat-rocking positions on the U.S.-Israel relationship coming from the diverse new wave of Democrats, Mellman believes there is no need for traditionally pro-Israel Democrats to panic: “We shouldn’t exaggerate their impact. There are 282 Democrats in the House and Senate. Maybe three or four have problematic views on Israel. That’s three or four more than I’d like, and we are working to bring them into alignment with the party’s traditional view — but 278 out of 282 is still a pretty good score.”

Keeping two worlds separate

Mellman stresses that the founders of DMFI conceived the organization before November’s midterm elections swept in this new crop of Bernie Sanders-inspired progressives. The new group’s debut, with Mellman at its helm, had been carefully planned and scheduled to coincide with the announcement of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

What they hadn’t counted on was the hyperactive and unpredictable nature of Israeli politics.

When Mellman took the job of front man for DMFI, he made it clear to the group’s board members that he had an ongoing commitment to Lapid that he would not abandon. But he, like everyone else, was caught off-guard when on December 24, days before DMFI’s planned launch, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset and set the gears in motion for a new election. Lapid, like the rest of the Israeli political firmament, quickly switched into campaign mode.

Though Mellman has done his best to keep his two worlds separate, there was at least one instance in which discomfort — if not outright conflict of interest — raised its head.

Over the course of DMFI’s short history, Mellman hasn’t hesitated to speak out strongly in his own voice, both in press releases and on Twitter. When Rep. Omar tweeted about “dual loyalty” and demands of “allegiance” to Israel, he called her out for “trafficking in unabashedly anti-Semitic rhetoric” and “hateful, hurtful, and harmful slander.” He said her words revealed “both woeful ignorance and flagrant bigotry,” and that “by suggesting pro-Israel views are paid for, Congresswoman Omar has driven headlong into the gutter, slandering America’s pro-Israel community and the vast majority of her colleagues of both parties, in the House and the Senate, who back a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

He even took a step toward trolling when he sarcastically praised Tlaib for “breaking her Israel boycott” by choosing the Israeli hosting company Wix for her website, stating: “We congratulate Congresswoman Tlaib for her decision to use the best products she can find instead of discriminating against Israel in way that increases hostility, thereby making peace between Israelis and Palestinians more difficult to achieve.”

So far, there has been one instance when had to Mellman recuse himself from DMFI activity because of his role in the Israeli election: He kept his name off a statement when DMFI and a host of American-Jewish organizations condemned the Habayit Hayehudi party’s alliance with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which paved the way for the extreme-right faction to become part of a future coalition.

That statement was issued solely under the name of the group’s co-chair, Ann Lewis, who declared: “Because we at Democratic Majority for Israel believe in a strong and democratic Israel, we are compelled to speak out against the possibility that followers of radical racist Meir Kahane could enter Israel’s parliament. Making such individuals parliamentarians would be an insult to the ideals embodied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and the principles espoused by every previous Israeli prime minister from every party.”

Being a voice for pro-Israel Democrats while simultaneously lending a hand to a campaign to rid Israel of Netanyahu might have been more problematic for someone like Mellman at a less partisan moment. But Trump and Netanyahu have become so politically intertwined — to the point that each is using the other to his political advantage — that there is as much potential for synergy as for conflict of interest.

‘Mensch’ behind the scenes

Another factor helping Mellman manage such a tricky position is the fact that he is widely respected and well-liked in Washington circles, by Jews and non-Jews from both parties. An Orthodox Jew who belongs to the Kesher Israel congregation in Georgetown, he is respected professionally and described as a rare “nice, honest guy” and a “mensch” in the shark-laden tank of Washington politics — and the right man to head DMFI’s mission.

“Mark is among a select group of highly accomplished political advisers in the Democratic Party, and has long made clear that support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israel’s security, and a two-state solution are fully consistent with the principles that unite Democrats,” says former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.

PR man Aaron Keyak, a friend and colleague of Mellman’s, says that “there is no one you’d rather have in your ear in a campaign, whether in Washington, D.C., or Jerusalem — or for that matter any other capital throughout the world.

“Having fought along his side in the trenches of numerous campaigns of the partisan nature during midterms and presidentials, but also in the much more challenging, personal and complex arena [of] shul politics,” Keyak jokes, “I’ve seen that following his advice can bridge the gap between winning and losing. He’s a pillar of our community and also happens to be one of the best, if not the best, at what he does professionally.”

Mellman himself doesn’t see his job steering DMFI and encouraging Democrats to continue supporting Israel as completely different from his campaign work. “I’ve never considered myself just a hired gun. I’ve worked for people and for causes that I believe in. But yes,” he admits, “in this role I’m not just behind the scenes, I’m the front man.”

Given the combative tone of many of his statements criticizing popular House members like Omar and Tlaib, Mellman’s enemies list may soon grow.

DMFI has been described in unflattering terms, and the anti-occupation group IfNotNow has scorned it as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for Democrats. It has even been accused of being a “cutout” or a “front” for AIPAC since many of its board members and some of its staff have had roles in the pro-Israel lobby group.

It is a charge the organization strongly rejects but is nonetheless haunted by it. As if to emphasize DMFI’s — and his — independence, Mellman will not be in attendance when his two worlds collide next week at the AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C.

While Gantz and Netanyahu ascend the stage to make their cases in front of thousands of American supporters of Israel, Mellman will be on the ground in Tel Aviv at Lapid’s side, leading the campaign that will help decide which political direction Israel chooses on April 9.

The outcome will surely play a major role in determining how difficult Mellman’s newest job will be: Convincing Democrats that the Jewish state is still a place they can support and believe in.