Meet the strategic political advisers who are influencing Israel's elections

They aren’t household names in Israel and certainly not abroad, but these advisers of top politicians are the big factors behind the scenes.

By
March 30, 2019 23:22
Tal Alexandrovich, Tal Gan-zvi, Shalom Shlomo, Moti Babchik

Tal Alexandrovich (from top left, clockwise) Shalom Shlomo,Tal Gan-zvi, Moti Babchik. (photo credit: INBAL MARMARI/COURTESY/ MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a rainmaker as “a person whose influence can initiate progress or ensure success.”


The word is said to come from the Native American practice of dancing to encourage the gods to send rain needed to grow crops.
Nowadays, that dance is done by movers and shakers behind the scenes who help top politicians grow their political support by planting the right ideas and strategies.
 
The word tends to be used for advisers who purposely keep a low profile, both despite their success and because of it. You won’t find too much about them if you search for them on the Internet, but they are well-known to the political leaders who depend on their advice and are awed or destroyed by them.
 
They are the unsung heroes and villains of the April 9 election, which with all due respect to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, would undoubtedly look very different were it not for their hard work.
 
Most of them refused to be interviewed for this article, not out of disrespect and not because they are genuinely extremely busy ahead of an election, but due to well-thought-out strategy to keep their bosses in the limelight and themselves in the dark.
The following are among the most successful of Israel’s political rainmakers.
 

Shalom Shlomo, 42, 
Blue and White strategist

Leading the charge: Shalom Shlomo walks ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
 
Click “Shalom Shlomo” on search engines, and you find a scientist in Texas, a Jerusalem yeshiva and a song about peace, or you are asked if you meant to search for the Shalom Sesame videos with Sesame Street characters about Israel and Jewish holidays.
Try looking on Google images, and you won’t see his face until the 22nd row.
 
Nevertheless, Shlomo is arguably one of the most successful and sought-after political strategists working in Israel today. 
 
Raised in the northern Gilboa Regional Council, Shlomo now lives on a small moshav south of Nazareth called Balfouria, where the population is fewer than 500 people. Nevertheless, his home is a known gathering place for politicians from across the political spectrum.
 
Shlomo worked for Netanyahu for what is thought to be longer than almost anyone ever has, from 2005 to 2011, proving his staying power. He left for Bayit Yehudi in 2013 to go help his former co-worker in Netanyahu’s office, Naftali Bennett.
 
Yair Lapid wooed him to Yesh Atid when elections were called and he now is among the team of strategists guiding Blue and White, which he helped establish. Credit has been given to Gabi Ashkenazi for bringing about the merger between Gantz and Lapid, but it was really Shlomo who did the dirty work to create the mega-party, persuading the different party leaders that the merger was essential to have a chance to defeat Netanyahu.
 
That was far from the only political deal Shlomo has made. He built the alliance between Bennett and Lapid in 2013, he got Ayelet Shaked the Justice portfolio in 2015 and he assisted in organizing the IDF reservists who helped bring down Ehud Olmert.
In 2008, it was Shlomo who prevented Kadima leader Tzipi Livni from establishing a coalition following the resignation of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Working behind the scenes, Shlomo made deals with the ultra-Orthodox parties according to which they would wait for elections and then join Netanyahu.
 
“Shalom Shlomo has had a hand in every major Israeli political development of the last 15 years,” a former colleague said.
Shlomo is known for being discreet. 
 
“He doesn’t talk about what he does with anyone,” another former colleague explained. “That is why politicians from across the spectrum – from the Right and Left – come to seek his advice. They know they can trust him.”
 
Between elections, he serves as Israel director of business development of Publicis Groupe, the world’s third-largest advertising and communications group. Founded in 1926, Publicis Groupe counts over 80,000 employees and is present in over 100 countries around the world. At Publicis, he works with a number of multinational companies, helping them break into and navigate the complicated Israeli market.
 
One client, for example, is telecom company Partner, owned by Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban. He also serves as the strategic adviser for the Histadrut labor union, one of the largest and most powerful entities in Israel, and the Maccabi Haifa soccer clubs, one of the strongest sports brands in the country.
 
“He has incredible charm, charisma and a sense of humor,” another former colleague said. “Any meeting he enters, he destroys with his comic talents. He is very sharp and knows how to build long-term steps with dominoes that lead to another. He can please everyone, because everyone likes him so much. People know that if he is speaking for his boss, he can deliver.”
 

Tal Gan-Zvi, 37, 
Naftali Bennett’s chief of staff
Tal Gan Zvi stands behind Naftali Bennett during a visit to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (credit: Flash90/ Yaacov Cohen)
 
When he became education minister, Naftali Bennett received a key piece of advice from his chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi: to stop going to bar mitzvahs and simchas of Bayit Yehudi central committee members.
 
The advice was intended to enable Bennett to concentrate on his work in the ministry and as a member of the security cabinet.
 
Not only did that advice bear fruit in professional success for Bennett, it eventually led to his departure from Bayit Yehudi and the formation of the New Right, a move that Gan-Zvi oversaw as the main architect and driver behind the new party.
 
After being less beholden to the activists and apparatchiks of the old National Religious Party, it was easier for Bennett to leave on what many predict will be a stopover on the way to the Likud and a run for prime minister.
 
The fact that Bennett adopted both the advice on the bar mitzvahs and the decision to leave Bayit Yehudi proves that he has put his complete trust in Gan-Zvi, who is the closest man to Bennett and runs his office with an iron fist.
 
Gan-Zvi lives in Gush Etzion. He served in the Egoz commando unit, grew up in Haifa, earned business and law degrees at Bar-Ilan University and worked for Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat before joining Bennett when he entered politics in 2012.
 
The departure from Bayit Yehudi to a new party gave Gan-Zvi more centralized power. He played a key role in establishing the party, building the list of candidates and has overseen strategy for the New Right’s campaign.
 
Over the last four years, Gan Zvi led the reforms carried out in the Education Ministry. While Bennett might set the policy, without Gan-Zvi at his side, it simply wouldn’t happen, a former colleague said.
 
Gan-Zvi worked directly with the Finance Ministry and secured hundreds of millions of shekels in additional budgets for the Education Ministry that led to the series of reforms Bennett has carried out over the last four years – smaller classes, a second assistant in kindergartens, math and English programs and more.
 
Former and current colleagues describe him as smart, creative and a top-notch manager.
 
Gan-Zvi maintains close ties across the political spectrum and supervises messaging to the media to maximize their impact. One of his strategic successes has been establishing an alliance between Bennett and the haredi parties, a relationship that Gan-Zvi works hard at maintaining.
 
“He is the ultimate loyalist,” one former colleague said. “One of his most important traits is his ability to get things done.”
 
Completely loyal to Bennett, Gan-Zvi shuns publicity for himself but does much of the hard work of implementing Bennett’s vision. He also rarely hesitates to take the flak for his boss when needed. That work built his reputation as a bulldozer with a bright future in business or public service.
 
Yonatan Urich, 31, 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman

Yonatan Urich stands to the right and a bit behind PM Netanyahu while walking in the Knesset (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
 
When key Netanyahu staff left in recent years, the media portrayed it as if his bureau was falling apart, but sources close to him now say it was part of a strategic move to empower young advisers who better understand how the world has changed.
 
Netanyahu advisers Yonatan Urich, Topaz Luk and Shir Cohen have in common that they are in their late 20s and early 30s and served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit with Netanyahu’s son Yair, but deny having ties with him that led to their jobs.
“Everyone is in his position because of his talents,” one of them told The Jerusalem Post.
 
Urich in particular was a protégé of then-IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu, who said they learned a lot from each other, even though their views on politics are exact opposites. He helped Benyahu form the Spokesman’s Unit’s new media department and taught him how to use social media.
 
“He is among the most talented people in Israeli politics,” Benayahu said. “It’s incredible how much Netanyahu trusts him. Netanyahu realized that any spokesman above 30 is worthless because he didn’t grow up with the Internet. He is a new model of spokesman, very dedicated, loyal and professional, but able to tell the prime minister behind closed doors that he is wrong. He loves Netanyahu and the prime minister loves him back.”
 
When Urich got married last year, Netanyahu and his wife Sara surprised many by staying there for the entire wedding. Urich is known for his cynicism on social media and doesn’t hesitate to lash out at Netanyahu’s political rivals.
 
“He is the top new media expert in Israel,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “He made Bibi’s Facebook page a media outlet. He creates discourse online, knowing how to take advantage of social media to create a buzz and steer the discourse to the prime minister’s advantage.”
 
A native of Kfar Saba, Urich went to the Har Etzion yeshiva and worked on the IDF website, the religious-Zionist Kippa site and the Makor Rishon and NRG news sites.
 
He was credited for changing Netanyahu’s mind on Hebron shooter Elor Azaria.
 
“Urich’s future is bright,” Benayahu said.
 
Tal Alexandrovich Segev, 45, 
Benny Gantz’s strategist


Tal Alexandrovich Segev, 45,  Benny Gantz’s strategist
 
Before entering politics, Gantz met with many campaign strategists before deciding to hire the firm of Ben-Horin and Alexandrovich, whose CEOs Tal Alexandrovich Segev and Itay Ben Horin have been running his campaign.
 
Alexandrovich Segev was born and raised in Tel Aviv and has been in the media and communications business for 21 years. She started off as a soldier in the military reporters’ section of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, then worked at the Labor and Welfare Ministry while completing an undergraduate degree in communications and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she later also earned a master’s degree.
 
Alexandrovich Segev worked at the Histadrut and served as the media adviser to the then-minister of science, culture and sport Matan Vilnai. She joined her firm as a partner in 2008 and has since run successful campaigns for Shelly Yacimovich as Labor leader and Avi Nissenkorn as head of the Histadrut.
 
While her firm represents more than 100 clients, including government ministries, large companies, colleges and banks, she is most proud of campaigns that added more than 100,000 potential donors to the Ezer Mizion bone marrow donor database.
 
“Benny came through word of mouth,” Alexandrovich Segev said. “We work for people we believe in, who do things right. That’s why Benny was such a good fit for us. It has been an honor and a joy to work with him.”
 
Under her leadership, Blue and White’s campaign has focused on the abilities and effectiveness of the party’s leadership, especially on security issues. A rare woman in her field, she works at least 18 hours a day and still finds time for who she describes as two “understanding” daughters, ages 17 and 14.
 
“I am first and foremost a professional with experience and ability,” she said. “Being a woman is part of who I am. It’s impressive that Benny listens to the many women on our team. Our voice is being heard.”
 
It does not bother her that she is not a household name in Israel and not known at all outside the country.
 
“What matters is the leader, not the adviser,” she said. “We are less known for what we do, but that’s on purpose. It’s the essence that matters. We can’t forget that we are here for a leader and a path that we need to advance. I am lucky to work in a job I love. Every day I work I appreciate that – and am very thankful for it.”
 
 
Moti Babchik, 36, 
Yaakov Litzman’s chief of staff


 
The prime minister usually deals directly with his cabinet ministers and tends to have little contact with their advisers.
 
That was why Netanyahu raised eyebrows in November 2016, when during a speech at the annual conference of haredi newspaper Hamodia, he asked, “Where is Babchik?” and complimented him.
 
Babchik was raised in Bnai Brak, where he was a schoolmate of Shlomo Zvi, the son of the current grand rabbi of the Gerrer Hassidic sect, Yaakov Aryeh Alter. That led to him becoming close to the rebbe and his emissary to the political world.
 
He started working for Yaakov Litzman when he first became deputy health minister a decade ago and during the months when Litzman resigned in protest and was technically outside the ministry, Babchik ran it under the health minister, Netanyahu.
 
“In the haredi world, they usually don’t let young, inexperienced advisers get that close,” said Radio Kol Chai and Actualic website political correspondent Israel Ohaion. “Top advisers are usually in their 60s and experience is usually valued beyond skills, but he proved the opposite. He has achieved what he has because of his skills.”
 
Together with Litzman’s spokesman, Yaakov Izak, Babchik helped give Litzman a more positive, less extreme image among the general public by making him open to the non-haredi public as health minister and deputy minister.
 
Babchik handles Litzman’s political crises, negotiations and sensitive decisions. He was heavily involved in the haredi draft bill and pushed for the Minimarkets Law. He improved relations between haredim and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
“With his energy and accessibility, Babchik is seen as a possible future leader of Agudat Yisrael,” Ohaion said. “He is especially loved in the home of Gerrer Rebbe and that’s what matters.”
 

Livnat Nizri, 42, 
Shas strategist 


 
When the chief strategist of Shas in the current campaign, Avi Lerner, invited Liat Nizri to interview for post of campaign spokesperson, it surprised her, because she is a woman and religious Zionist, not haredi.
 
Nizri, who has a successful strategic consulting firm, received offers from multiple companies, but decided to go with the biggest challenge.
 
She is identified with the Likud after working for politicians like Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen, when he was Knesset Economics Committee chairman. She ran his successful 2018 campaign for mayor and the campaigns of Gila Gamliel and other candidates in the recent Likud primary.
 
But she also grew up in a Sephardi family in the northern city of Ma’alot, where Shas is strong. Her brother Raz Nizri has risen quickly through the ranks to become deputy attorney-general and she is also a fast riser.
 
“I never felt discriminated against, but in recent years I see more that I have to prove myself in a male-dominated Tel Avivian snob world,” Nizri said. “Women do the majority of the work running campaigns for products and culture, but with politics there are many more men. I have no doubt it will change. But when a woman uses her elbows, they don’t call her assertive. They use bad words.”
Nizri, who now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb Givat Shmuel, is a single mother, so she has had to make sacrifices to succeed that she said have not been easy.
 
“I am part of a team of strategists and usually the only woman in the room, but everyone is complimentary,” she said. “I wasn’t chosen because I am a woman but because of my experience and skills. [Interior Minister Aryeh] Deri is sharp, decisive and practical, and I like that about him. He is a good listener and understands quickly.” 

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