Israel Elections: F-35s, soybeans and politics - what the US gave Israel

Israel heads to the polls again, with parties taking cues from the latest American election.

Drive-by voting in the Israeli election amid the coronavirus pandemic 2021 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Drive-by voting in the Israeli election amid the coronavirus pandemic 2021
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
America still likes to fashion itself as the world’s #1 exporter of democracy.
“We sure get more practice than anyone else,” political strategist Mark Mellman told The Media Line.
“A presidential election every four years, plus mid-terms (for the House of Representatives and Senate), races for governors, mayors, councilman, school board – you name it, there’s voting going on for it,” said Mellman.
One of the jokes surrounding Israel’s constant state of elections over the last two years is that it just wants to remind everyone it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. And the March 23 election will continue a long-standing tradition of Israeli political parties turning to American strategists and pollsters and their vast electoral experiences. Mellman, who serves as the president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, is again advising Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign is being led by American Aaron Klein, a former conservative journalist, and will again employ pollster John McLaughlin. Netanyahu rival Gideon Saar, who broke away from Netanyahu’s Likud Party to form New Hope, hired, then fired, a number of consultants from the center-right Lincoln Project, the American anti-Donald Trump advocacy group recently enmeshed in scandal.
In 1996, Republican Party consultant Arthur Finkelstein was brought on the campaign by Netanyahu, helping to catapult him to his first run as Israeli premier. Three years later, Netanyahu’s challenger, Ehud Barak, hired an all-star team of American Democratic consultants, bringing the Israeli left its most-recent – and long-distant – victory.
“The strategy centered on Netanyahu’s government being stuck and going nowhere and making the country stuck, but the narrative of Barak was his strength on security,” political strategist Jim Gerstein told The Media Line, discussing Barak’s departure from the Israel Defense Forces as its most decorated soldier. Gerstein is a founding partner of political strategy and research firm GBAO, who worked on the Barak campaign with Bill Clinton campaign heavyweights like James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Bob Shrum.
“There was still a hunger in the country to complete Yitzhak Rabin's work. The first Bibi government was not doing well, and the Barak campaign was very well-run,” said Gerstein, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
The campaign even saw its own Watergate-style scandal – a break-in at the Washington offices of Greenberg, where records connected to the Barak campaign were stolen or tampered with. And while Clinton’s push for change in Israel helped Barak’s fundraising and pushed him into office, reports of illegal American contributions among Clinton patrons to Barak’s campaign eventually led the Israeli comptroller to levy a $3.2 billion fine on Barak’s One Israel Party.
“I think politics is rough-and-tumble all over. In some places I’ve worked, bullets are pretty common,” said Mellman, CEO of The Mellman Group polling and consulting firm and the president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
“But that’s generally not true in Israel, even with the aberration of the Rabin assassination. Israeli politics may seem dirty at times, and there’s a lot of mud-slinging in the campaigns, but there is much more political violence in other countries. In one South American campaign, I came down to meet with a candidate, and I picked up a newspaper and read that the candidate was replaced by his campaign manager after the candidate was assassinated. I landed and was surrounded by a convoy of officers and not allowed to leave the hotel for fear of my safety. By this measure, Israeli politics are relatively sane,” said Mellman, who emphasized the American political consulting work is a global export, and certainly not limited to Israel, even though it garners much attention there.
Part of the draw of working on an Israeli campaign comes from the Jewishness of some in the political consulting world, like Klein and Mellman, Greenberg and Gerstein.
“I have a special affinity for Israel, personally. I got started working for Lapid after being introduced by mutual friends. I’d worked in the past with Israeli political organizations. I love all the places I go, but I love Israel more,” said Mellman.
“There are lots of cultural ties between the two countries, there is a robust democracy in both countries, professionals in both countries and strong ties across the spectrum,” said Gerstein, whose wife is Israeli. Gerstein has consulted for the left-wing Meretz party in previous elections but is sitting this cycle out.
“The importance is on collaboration when bringing together teams from different backgrounds. These collaborations are successful when there is a two-way street and there's a real connection. The Americans don't need to know the difference between (Shas party head Aryeh) Deri and (United Torah Judaism party head Yaakov) Litzman and the Israelis don't need to know the difference between a sample size of 800 and 1,000 in a poll. Both sides are learning and teaching each other,” said Gerstein.  
Israel has a fairly unique electoral system – proportional and non-geographically-based. In most races in the US, 50%+1 of the vote means victory, and defeat is fairly clear-cut. A win is defined in many ways in Israel. The biggest factor is the sheer number of parties, which means a king can be crowned with only 25% of the vote.
“The ways of communicating are also different. I have worked for presidents in Columbia where there was no political advertising of any kind – just giant rallies and free press,” said Mellman.
In Israel, TV and radio ads are highly regulated and restricted, which sparked a major movement into online advertising. This is among the reasons Saar turned to the Lincoln Project, which had become known for its hard-hitting, captivating social media vignettes.
Another defining feature of the most recent American election cycle was the ability of President Joe Biden and select Senate candidates to win in traditionally Republican territory, completely changing the political landscape. Lapid and others on the Israeli center-left took note.
“I would say as a Democrat pollster, when we work in red states it feels like working as a center-left pollster in Israel. Right now, the majority of the Israeli electorate identifies as right wing, so for a center-left candidate to win, you need to play offense in a way that's similar to Democrats winning in red states,” meaning a solidly Republican state, said Gerstein, whose company did polling work for Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, whose victory helped push Democrats to surprising control of both chambers of the US Congress.
Lapid reportedly is trying to learn from and duplicate Georgia Democrats’ COVID-19-era get-out-the-vote efforts.
"No campaign is exactly the same. They're all unique. And I think that’s why Israeli candidates turn to Americans because there is such a robust political campaign industry in the US. Four elections in two years seems like a lot to Israelis, but Americans have a never-ending campaign cycle," said Gerstein.
And if the current polls are accurate, the Americans could be back again later this year, to work for candidates in a fifth Israeli election. A never-ending campaign might not be exclusive to the US in the end.