The little-known strategist who changed the course of Israel's history

The political broadcasts designed by Arthur Finkelstein were short, stark, repetitive - and successful


Twenty-one years ago, allowing a non-Israeli who didn’t speak Hebrew or have any experience of the local political scene to craft a Knesset election campaign was unthinkable. 

But in late 1995, as Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, was frantic to close the 30-point gap that had opened between him and Shimon Peres in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, he desperately sought any advantage. 

Ronald Lauder, his friend and patron, recommended he hire a low-profile but devastatingly efficient Republican strategic advisor. 

Arthur Finkelstein, who died on Friday in Massachusetts aged 72, had been around since the Nixon years, crafting messages for GOP candidates, analysing polling data and probing his rivals' weakest spots. 

The 1996 election was the first campaign he ran outside North America, but the strategy he had developed for over two decades proved just as successful overseas. 

He promised Mr Netanyahu that the gap in the polls was temporary and went about shrinking it by focusing Likud’s campaign on the threat that “Peres will divide Jerusalem”. There was no proof that was the case, but Jerusalem was a symbol of consensus for Israelis, and Prime Minister Peres, who was holding secret talks with the Palestinians and the Syrians, was unconvincing with his denials. 

The political broadcasts designed by Mr Finkelstein were short, stark and repetitive. 

Black shattering glass, giving way to blurry photographs of Mr Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat together. Mr Netanyahu on the other hand was shown in reassuring soft colours and light, promising “a secure peace”. 

The campaign was to revolve around two things only, the American guru explained to eager Likud staff: fear with Peres and peace with Netanyahu. And it worked. Mr Netanyahu won by a single per cent, defying all predictions. 

Arthur Finkelstein also had a profound influence on US politics, without ever becoming a household name. He mentored an entire generation of Republican strategists in running negative campaigns and attack ads. He took pride in having made the word “liberal” a slur. 

But it was in Israel, where he continued to work with Mr Netanyahu and other right-wing candidates including Ariel Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman and Nir Barkat, where he helped change the course of a nation’s history. 

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive