Netanyahu strategist Arthur Finkelstein dies at 72

He was "an unorthodox man with a winning personality, charm and wisdom."

Political strategist Arthur Finkelstein (photo credit: screenshot)
Political strategist Arthur Finkelstein
(photo credit: screenshot)
Political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who worked for the Likud in several elections, as well as US Republican presidential candidates, died of lung cancer Friday at age 72.
He is survived by his husband, whom he married in 2005, and their two daughters.
A Jewish American born in New York in 1945, Finkelstein came to prominence in the 1970s, helping turn Ronald Reagan into a nationally known politician in the 1976 Republican primary, and continued to help conservative politicians get elected first in the US, and later internationally. He worked with US presidents Richard Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as with many Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates.
Finkelstein was known for developing biting attack ads, a talent he used to help win Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the premiership for the first time in 1996. He is credited with coining the winning slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem,” referring to then-prime minister Shimon Peres, after analyzing polling data and finding that Israelis would reject a deal with the Palestinians that would require the capital’s division.
The strategist worked with Netanyahu again in 1999, when he lost the election to Ehud Barak; Ariel Sharon’s winning campaign in 2001; Likud MK Silvan Shalom in 2003; and Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima primary in 2008.
Finkelstein was behind the union between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu in 2013, an election in which they lost a quarter of their combined seats in the Knesset.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat were among his recent Israeli clients.
Liberman, for whom Finkelstein wrote the slogans “Da Liberman,” using the Russian word for “yes,” and “No Citizenship Without Loyalty,” said Saturday that Finkelstein was an “unorthodox man with a winning personality, charm and wisdom.”
“Arthur was a polymath with broad knowledge in many areas, but before all else, he was a warm Jew and a great admirer of the State of Israel,” Liberman said. “Arthur was a great professional, whose activities around the world introduced him to presidents and prime ministers, but never changed his comfortable personality, and he was always careful to remain grounded.”
The defense minister called Finkelstein a personal friend whom he will remember as one of the most interesting people he has met.
Two pollsters who worked with Finkelstein shed some light on his influence and methods.
George Birnbaum, who worked with Finkelstein for 25 years and was his business partner for more than a decade, called Finkelstein “proof that one man can really change the world,” pointing to the impact he had both in Israel, where he helped get Netanyahu and Sharon elected, and in the US, with Nixon and Reagan, and saying he did the same in a dozen countries.
“Arthur’s genius was the ability to take data and translate it into an art form. A lot of consultants are good at polls or good at ads – this was something very unique about Arthur,” he said.
In Israel, Finkelstein would ask, in all his polls, the question of whether people identify first as Jews or as Israelis, and would use the answers to design campaigns.
“It showed in a unique way how people behave when they voted,” Birnbaum recounted. “Out of that came ‘Peres will divide Jerusalem’...
’Bibi is good for the Jews’ sort of came from that.”
Pollster and strategist Mitchell Barak explained “people who see themselves and Jews first respond to Auschwitz, or the kind of things you hear Netanyahu say about defensible borders. People who are Israelis first want to eat Hummus in Ramallah. Since 1996, that’s how you define Israelis.” Barak said that, for Finkelstein, working in Israel was “more than just a place of work. It was a vested interest for him. He definitely loved Israel.”
Finkelstein’s polling for Sharon found that the war-hero-turned-politician was one of the most beloved people in Israel, Barak recalled, but the strategist later grew concerned and felt that Sharon’s Gaza-disengagement plan was splitting Israel apart.
“We pitched the leaders of the Yesha Council” of Jewish communities of the West Bank and, then Gaza, Barak said, “and they thought they knew everything, that they could go with their gut instinct and don’t need pollsters. He said to them: ‘You know what I think? The disengagement will probably happen and life will move on. What’ll you do then?’ He was a very brilliant man.”
Barak said Finkelstein was a “rock star” in Israel.
“Every Israeli knew who he was. In very few countries do people know political pollsters, so he was more famous here than anywhere else.”
Finkelstein gave very few interviews, but a rare one given to The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication Maariv in 2004, provides insight into what he may have thought about today’s politics.
“When you allow people to choose between the corrupt and the stupid, they will go for the corrupt,” he said, which could be his answer to whether Netanyahu’s current legal troubles will hurt him electorally.
As for Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential election, one can look at what he said of the latter in 2004: “In terms of the Republicans, Hillary Clinton is a wonderful candidate for the presidency.”