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Washington — American consultants working in Israel were struck by several structural differences between the political system they knew from home and that of Israel. Key to them is the finance issue. Israeli election laws limit donations significantly. Funding depends solely on government allocations. This makes for a low-budget operation, especially for small parties or newcomers, since the government’s financing is based on the size of the party in the outgoing Knesset.
TV ads also work differently in Israel. In the United States, television accounts for the main campaign expense, as candidates need to purchase airtime from local stations. In Israel, TV airtime is also allocated — at no cost — by the government, based on the party’s size.
American campaign advisers became active in Israeli political campaigns in the mid-1990s. Netanyahu, in his first run for office — in 1996, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — recruited Finkelstein, a celebrated Republican pollster and strategist. The move, and Finkelstein’s success in winning that election against all odds, changed the face of Israeli campaigning. In 1999, Ehud Barak, then leader of the Labor Party, called on several American consultants who worked with Bill Clinton to help him beat Netanyahu. James Carville led the team, which also included Greenberg, Bob Shrum and Gerstein. Following Barak’s victory, Carville joked that the key to winning an election in Israel “came down to who got the all-important Jewish vote.”
Ever since, American advisers have been regulars in Israeli election campaigns on both sides of the political divide.
Finkelstein’s work on Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign began a years-long involvement in Israeli politics. Finkelstein, whose penchant for privacy and aversion to press exposure only heightened his aura as a behind-the-scenes genius, had already gained a reputation in the United States as a fierce strategist who taught candidates the importance of going on the attack and sticking to one message, that message more often than not being that their opponents were feckless or extremist liberals — a political label turned into an epithet. It worked well for such clients as U.S. Senators Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Alfonse D’Amato, the last being one of Finkelstein’s earliest and closest clients, who won regularly with his help even in heavily Democratic New York. Finkelstein employed the same aggressive principles in Israeli campaigns.
In 1999, Finkelstein worked again with Netanyahu, in an unsuccessful bid for re-election. He later advised the campaign of Ariel Sharon, when Sharon became the Likud’s leader. And in 2008 he was part of Avigdor Lieberman’s winning strategy that made his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Israel’s third largest. In between, Finkelstein also advised Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
But as poll numbers during the recent campaign began to indicate that Netanyahu was losing voters to Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party on the right and to Yesh Atid on the left, Finkelstein found himself targeted as the cause. The Israeli press quoted anonymous Likud activists blaming Finkelstein and his strategy for Netanyahu’s plunge.
Others, however, praised Finkelstein for one piece of advice that may have saved Netanyahu’s leadership position: It was Finkelstein who came up with the idea to merge the Likud’s list with that of Lieberman’s nationalist-oriented Yisrael Beiteinu party, creating a new political list called Likud-Beiteinu.