“Israel can be better, stupid.” That’s the overarching message Ehud Barak needs to carry if he wants to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to James Carville, one of the top U.S. election strategists hired by the Labor Party candidate for prime minister.
Borrowing from the successful mantra he created for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president, “It’s the economy, stupid,” Carville is hoping to lead another candidate into office.
But if Barak is going to win the Israeli election, he is going to have to beat candidates who themselves are being advised by some of Carville’s traditional allies in the Clinton camp — as well as a couple of rivals.
Nearly a dozen high-profile American campaign consultants are flocking to Israel in advance of the May 17 elections.
Netanyahu, Barak and the new unnamed centrist party all have secured the services of some of America’s top political strategists. Many small parties are also hiring American consultants.
The new rush for American political expertise comes on top of a renewed drive for American dollars by prime ministerial candidates looking to help fund their campaigns.
It’s not that there is any shortage of Israeli political experts. Pundits and pollsters abound in the Jewish state.
So why are Israeli candidates shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for American advice? And what will a full-force, American-style campaign do to already-heated Israeli politics?
Netanyahu may have the answers.
He rode the campaign commercials of Arthur Finkelstein, one of the most sought- after Republican strategists in the United States, to victory in the 1996 election.
Finkelstein created the message that instilled fear in Israeli voters that Netanyahu’s opponent, Shimon Peres, was soft on terrorism and would divide Jerusalem. Commercials with Peres and Arafat walking hand in hand followed by scenes from suicide bombings in Tel Aviv were credited with swaying the winning margin to Netanyahu.
And throughout his tenure as prime minister Netanyahu has relied on Finkelstein.
Although former premiers Menachem Begin and Peres both had U.S. advisers in the 1970s and 1980s, neither allowed their strategists to play a prominent role.
In 1996 Peres frustrated his American advisers, including pollsters Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, by ignoring their advice to attack back.
This time around, sources say, Penn and Schoen, who have worked for President Clinton, will be hired by the new centrist party, which is being headed by Yitzhak Mordechai.
Barak has promised not to make the same mistakes as Peres. He has already used some of Carville’s advice to counter Netanyahu’s attacks with pithy one-liners of his own.
“Too many lies for too long,” Barak charged last month, soon after the Knesset dissolved itself and called for new elections.
Netanyahu immediately fired back, raising an incident from years ago when Barak left the scene of a military training accident before the wounded were fully evacuated. A commission later cleared him of any wrongdoing.
The early sparring has led to concerns that Israel’s already emotionally charged campaigns could turn even nastier.
“The increasing reliance on American spin-doctors will bring some of the worst aspects of American electoral politics to the Israeli scene,” leaders of the American Jewish Congress wrote in a recent opinion piece.
“In the United States, we have seen the degrading effect on political discourse of excessive marketing and manipulation,” wrote Jack Rosen, AJCongress president, and Phil Baum, the group’s executive director.
“We can only hope that image and sound bites will not be called upon to replace substance, just when substance is most critically needed.”
For their part, the consultants admit that they have both positive and negative influences on the Jewish state.
“The truth is, Israeli politics is already pretty ugly and has been before any real American influence,” said Steve Rabinowitz, another of Barak’s American advisers.
“It’s hard to imagine Finkelstein or Carville making Israeli politics uglier,” Rabinowitz added. “It will be quicker and sharper.”
“On the positive side, it’s been a modernization of some election techniques in Israel,” Rabinowitz said, citing sophisticated polling techniques as an example.
“The downside has been a opportunity for both sides to charge that candidates are puppets of American consultants.”
On a recent episode of a popular Israeli television show, “Hartzufim,” a political parody with clay puppets, both Netanyahu and Barak were fed debate lines through earpieces from off-stage American advisers.
At the end of the debate, both candidates hum “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“By hiring high-profile, top American consultants, they tend to become more of the campaign than the candidates and the message. The issues will now take a back seat,” said Ed Miller, a former Republican consultant and current law school student who is advising Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, a Russian immigrant rights party headed by Natan Sharansky. The party is now vying in its second election.
Miller cited Netanyahu’s attack on Barak for parroting Carville after the consultant’s first visit to Israel last month.
He also cited the recent break-ins at the offices of the Washington pollsters hired by Barak.
Twice in one week, burglars disabled security systems and took Labor Party files from the Capitol Hill office of Stanley Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster. In addition to Carville and Greenberg, Barak has completed the team with the services of Robert Shrum, a media strategist.
Greenberg, who has refused to comment about the break-in, called the Israeli electorate “very sophisticated.”
“I don’t worry that they’re going to be bamboozled by American techniques,” he told the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
Responding to concerns that Clinton is influencing the Israeli elections and policy through consultants close to him, Greenberg said, “I never consulted him. He doesn’t consult me when he bombs Iraq and I don’t consult him on who to work for.”
Another prominent Democratic consultant, Mark Mellman, is working for Meimad, a moderate Orthodox movement.
Aware that they have become part of the campaign, many of the consultants have refused requests for on-the-record interviews.
So for now they will work behind the scenes — as do Israeli and American fund- raisers seeking money from American Jews for the Israeli candidates.
Beginning in 1994, Israeli candidates were barred from accepting direct contributions from overseas. But many Americans continue to contribute through legal “friends-of” committees set up in the United States.
Israeli campaign watchers believe that candidates this year will surpass the record $6 million raised in the 1996 campaign.
In addition to their concern over American consultants, some American Jews warned against the “corrosive” effects American Jewish money has on Israeli democracy.
“There is something unpalatable and wrong about campaigns for office in Israel being fought out on American soil,” Rosen and Baum of AJCongress wrote, referring to fund-raising here.
“As a matter of good sense and due regard for the Israeli electorate, American Jews ought to reject all” requests for campaign contributions.
But for now, at least, this warning is going unheeded.
Israeli polls open in less than five months. By then, Israelis will know if Barak was right when he hired his strategists and predicted “a better campaign.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.