Mofaz learns campaign lessons from US experts

US and Israeli campaigns are more similar than you think, says his strategist.

mofaz gever 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mofaz gever 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's campaign strategist analyzes Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On's support for his rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he uses the Kennedys as an example of the lack of value of politicians' endorsements. "The Kennedys endorsed Barack Obama, and yet Hillary Clinton won the primary in Massachusetts where the Kennedys are everything," says George Birnbaum, who is the Israeli partner of internationally-renowned campaign strategist Arthur Finkelstein. Finkelstein, who was born in New York, and Birnbaum, who is a native of Los Angeles and was raised in Atlanta, are giving Mofaz advice from an American perspective that they believe works in Israel and around the world. The host of the top political radio show in the country, Army Radio's Razi Barka'i, mocked Birnbaum this week, telling him that people whose first language is English cannot possibly understand the Israeli mindset. Birnbaum rejects that criticism as patronizing and silly. "It's like Israelis telling Coca-Cola to change their bottle shape in Israel," Birnbaum says. "There are public relations campaigns that are the same everywhere in the world. It's understanding what is the same and what must be different that makes Arthur and I successful. I'd put Arthur's and I's [sic] records against anyone else in Israel." Finkelstein has advised two American presidents - Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan - two Israeli prime ministers - Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon - and the heads of several European countries. Birnbaum has joined him in many of those campaigns, as well as in his recent work on behalf of his current Israeli clients Mofaz, Israel Beiteinu and front-running Jerusalem mayoral candidate Nir Barkat. "All elections everywhere in the world and at any level are the same and different," Birnbaum says. "What is the same is that what drives people to vote is hope that their lives will get better. They are different because every situation, time and candidate is different. The chess game is to see how the electorate and your candidate fits in that." Finkelstein and Birnbaum set a course for candidates, make sure they stick to it, and then decide how and when it should be changed. "We don't control candidates or change what they believe, but we do help them package and express what they believe," Birnbaum says. "People have an image of consultants as puppet masters but most of the time, it's not the case, and if it is, it's because the politician asked for it." Birnbaum believes the issues in a race are not nearly as influential in driving people to vote as a candidate's personality and whether voters identity with him or her. In each race, they look to find a relationship between those factors. According to Birnbaum, what divides voters in Israel is whether they identify themselves first as Jewish or as Israeli. The former are more likely to vote for right-wing candidates and the latter for left-wing candidates. By asking that question, he has found that Kadima has more right-of-center voters, which should help Mofaz. While Finkelstein has a reputation for negative campaigning, Birnbaum says Mofaz decided against it in this race, "because of his principles and because he didn't want to lower himself to that level of politics." In crafting Mofaz's campaign, Finkelstein and Birnbaum decided he should emphasize his security background and knowledge, because it positions him as experienced against a candidate, in Livni, who is less inexperienced on the key issue of the day. "When the stakes are so high here in Israel, people need to feel safe," says Birnbaum. "This is especially true after the Second Lebanon War." When deciding on Mofaz's slogan, Finkelstein and Birnbaum chose to use the Hebrew word aharai ("Follow me"), to emphasize his military leadership. Birnbaum hopes it will be as successful as the "Bibi is good for the Jews" slogan that helped Finkelstein get Netanyahu elected prime minister in 1996 and the Israel Beiteinu slogan "Nyet, nyet, da" that helped win the party 11 seats in the last election. Finkelstein comes to Israel once every two weeks to spend time with his Israeli clients. Birnbaum talks to the candidate's staff as much as 20 times a day. Birnbaum speaks to Mofaz in Hebrew, Finkelstein in English. Birnbaum, 38, lives in Jerusalem with his Israeli-born wife and baby daughter. He boasts that he never took a political science course in his life. He received a degree from the Florida Institute of Technology in astrophysics, hoping to become an astronaut. Finkelstein, 62, is intensely private and avoids being photographed. His homosexuality became an issue when it was revealed because he had represented many American politicians who were outspoken against gays. When Netanyahu first hired Finkelstein, he was criticized for bringing in an American adviser. Ehud Barak even read Finkelstein's US phone number aloud on the Knesset floor to tease Netanyahu in a July 1998 Knesset debate. But since then, both Likud and Labor have relied on American consultants in every election. When Finkelstein first advised Israeli politicians, one questioned him for repeating his message many so times. "Israelis will get it the first time," the politicians said. Birnbaum noted that Israelis have come a long way since then and no one would question repeating messages in the media any more. If he succeeds in helping Mofaz beat Livni, Israeli talk show hosts will probably be easier on him in the future.