Washington — On the night of January 22, as polling stations closed in Israel’s national elections, Yair Lapid, the man about to emerge as the night’s greatest winner, was sitting with his inner circle. And as with many other Israeli politicians, that circle included a key American.
Mark Mellman, a veteran Washington-based political consultant for many American Democratic politicians, was hopeful that night as he awaited the results. But when they finally came in, even he said, “I must admit I was surprised.”
Because of budget constraints, Mellman, considered one of Washington’s top pollsters, had been unable to conduct much polling toward the end of the campaign. But by the night’s end, when it became clear that Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party had won 19 Knesset seats, catapulting it to Israel’s second-largest party, “there was a sense of elation,” Mellman said. Only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu coalition had done better.
The Israeli election not only determined who will lead the country for the next four years and who will sit with the opposition; it also made for new winners and losers among some of America’s top political consultants who were drafted to help out many of the Israeli parties.
Like the candidate for whom he worked, Mellman, who was working his first campaign in Israel, became an instant star. Conversely, GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein, considered for more than a decade to be the brains behind the ongoing success of the Likud and other right-wing parties, now shares the blame for the weak performance of Likud-Beiteinu.
Fresh off their November 2012 campaigns in the United States, half a dozen American consultants — all of them Jewish — assisted Israeli parties during this election cycle. Mellman led Yesh Atid’s campaign; Finkelstein and his partner, George Birnbaum, worked on Netanyahu’s campaign; the Labor Party relied on the services of Stanley Greenberg, and Kadima hired David Eichenbaum.
“American consultants bring a fresh perspective,” said Jim Gerstein, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who has worked on Israeli campaigns. He noted that an outside expert can provide professional, emotionally removed evaluations that others involved in the campaign sometimes miss. When Gerstein worked with Ehud Barak in 1999, he found himself at times serving as an arbitrator between different factions within the campaign.
Mellman, who is a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Washington and has family in Israel, met with Yair Lapid just as the TV host decided to step into politics. Mellman brought to the relationship an impressive portfolio of successful Democratic Senate and House races, as well as experience working with not-for-profit organizations and large corporations. He spent more than a month on the ground in Israel, helping shape Lapid’s campaign while measuring the temperature of the Israeli public and the public’s response to Yesh Atid’s centrist message. “He is the quintessential Israeli,” Mellman said of Lapid. “He understands the psyche of Israelis.”
One of the key decisions that Mellman made during the campaign was to break with the Israeli political tradition of spending campaign cash on billboard ads and focus Yesh Atid’s effort on Internet outreach. Israeli campaign advisers questioned the move, noting that streets are filled with other parties’ signs, but Yesh Atid succeeded in winning over younger voters, who use the Internet as their prime source of information.