Record in US strategists advising Israeli election

Race pits three Republicans vs one Democrat.

THE BALLOT slips from the last elections are seen this week at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham.  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
THE BALLOT slips from the last elections are seen this week at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Four parties running in the March 23 election are employing American strategists and pollsters in what is believed to be a record.
There have been Israeli elections with three American strategists facing off against each other, but this is the first time there are four.
The trend of American strategists working in Israeli elections began in 1996, when Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu was advised by renowned Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein and his protégé, George Birnbaum, who later became Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
In the 1999 election, Netanyahu’s opponent Ehud Barak hired Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and George Carville to counter Finkelstein.
The head of Netanyahu’s current campaign is American journalist-turned-strategist Aaron Klein, who grew up in Philadelphia. He lived in Israel for a decade, working as a journalist with the Breitbart news site and other media outlets. But he got his start in strategy in the US, where he worked under former US president Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and was credited with advice that helped Trump capture the White House.
Klein was chief strategist of the Likud’s campaign in 2020, when it won more votes than any party in history. He remained Netanyahu’s strategic adviser and is now head of his campaign, overseeing every element of it.
New York-based Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who has worked for Likud in the last few elections and has advised Trump, works together with Klein on polling.
The Atlanta-based Birnbaum, who worked for Yisrael Beytenu in multiple elections after advising Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, is now the strategist and pollster for Yamina and its prime ministerial candidate, Naftali Bennett. Birnbaum has consulted and managed campaigns in more than 30 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.
Sources close to Bennett praised Birnbaum’s professionalism and said he would make a difference in the election and its aftermath.
Gideon Sa’ar was until recently advised by Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens, Rick Wilson and Reed Galen of the Utah-based Lincoln Project. But he ended his work with them after they were accused of covering up an alleged sexual-harassment scandal involving Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver.
The three teams of Republican strategists are being countered by Washington-based Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, who has worked for Yesh Atid since it was founded and is also CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, an advocacy group that supports pro-Israel policies among Democrats.
“He’s the best pollster in the business, and we’re very happy that we have him on our team,” said a Yesh Atid spokesman.
The strategists have been doing most of their work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Klein lives in Jerusalem, Lapid went to visit Mellman in the US before Ben-Gurion Airport closed, and Birnbaum will be coming back to Israel in the coming days and will be staying to vote.
The 1996 election made Israelis see the value in hiring American pollsters and strategists, Birnbaum said.
“It’s not so easy to replicate America to any country, let alone Israel, a multiparty parliamentary system with so many dividing lines,” he said. “But the 1996 race changed the dynamics of elections. No one thought Netanyahu would win, and everyone attributed it to Arthur.”