Arthur Finkelstein’s Problem, and Ours

You’ve got to feel sorry for Arthur Finkelstein. The legendary Republican campaign consultant, slayer of liberals from North Carolina to New York, seems to have met his match this year, in Israel of all places. And all he wanted to do, he said in a recently published interview, was “be part of Jewish history.”

Being part of Jewish history, for Finkelstein, means helping Binyamin Netanyahu get elected prime minister. Finkelstein did that brilliantly back in 1996. Since then, he’s returned periodically as a trusted adviser on crisis management. Now he’s working on Netanyahu’s re-election.

But things aren’t going according to plan. The techniques that Finkelstein perfected over two decades of bruising American campaigns — principally, tarring opponents with a nasty label they can’t shake — don’t seem to be working. His client, a renowned master of the media sound bite, has been turned into a punching bag by his rivals. Some insiders are blaming “Arthur” for the looming fiasco. Finkelstein is clearly rattled.

How rattled? In a recent interview in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, he was lashing out wildly, intemperately. “Anyone who doesn’t know me has no right to say some of the things that are being said,” he complained at one point. And at another: “Stupid people say stupid things.” Not the sophisticated talk you expect from a media master.

Finkelstein isn’t the only American unnerved by this Israeli election. Democratic consultant James Carville, who’s advising Labor Party challenger Ehud Barak, admitted to the Washington Post this month that he finds Israeli politics bewildering. “The intensity is just more than any place I’ve ever been,” he told the Post.

The bewilderment seems to have spread throughout the American political and media elite. Those who follow Israel closely are having a hard time following this election. Others are hardly trying. Most observers agree the outcome will be historic. They just can’t figure out which end is up.

The result is an eerie silence. Israel has virtually disappeared from the pages of The New York Times and other major newspapers. Television networks barely mention it. There’s not much talk about it in Washington, either. This is odd. Most Israeli elections set off a frenzy of speculation, punditry and advocacy. This time the silence is deafening.

The eeriest silence is inside the Clinton administration. Take the response to Israel’s current flirtation with Russia. With the United States at war and Russia backing the enemy, Israel’s sudden Slavic romance reportedly infuriates administration officials, from the president on down. Yet there’s been scarcely a word about it from the administration.

“Can you imagine,” says a source close to the administration, “if any other major ally — Canada, England — were carrying on like this, conducting an open romance with the enemy while America is at war? You’d see outrage. Press conferences, congressional resolutions, demonstrations outside the embassy. But when Israel does it, there’s hardly a peep. That’s what you call a ‘special relationship.'”

It’s also what you call a nervous administration.

What’s got everybody on edge is the bizarre, unpredictable nature of this election. With five candidates for prime minister and 33 parties running for Knesset, nobody has a clue what to expect.

As of now, no prime ministerial candidate will get 50 percent of the vote on May 17. That means a runoff three weeks later. Early polls suggested that in a one-on-one contest — if third-place centrist Yitzhak Mordechai were to quit — Netanyahu would win on May 17, but a second round could go to Labor’s Barak. The latest polls show the opposite: Barak in round one, Netanyahu in a runoff. Why the reversal? It’s not clear.

Increasing the confusion, the Knesset will be elected on May 17 even if the prime minister isn’t. That means that coalition negotiations can proceed during the runoff campaign. Actually, they’ve already begun. The big parties are maneuvering to set up post-May 17 coalitions. Each hopes to create a majority that will prevent a prime minister of the other party from governing. The thinking is that second-round voters will then choose a prime minister to match the Knesset. But they might do the opposite.

Nobody has been more upended by the confusion than Arthur Finkelstein. A master of the head-to-head duel, he’s made a career of electing conservatives by putting their opponents on the defensive and keeping them there. His trademark is a simple attack line, such as “hopelessly liberal” or “too liberal for too long,” endlessly repeated. The 1996 Netanyahu campaign version was “Peres Will Divide Jerusalem.”

This spring, there’s no other side to pin a label on. Instead, there’s a constantly moving target, a hall of mirrors in which threats come now from left, now right, now center. Striking back here might anger voters there. A nod to Russian immigrants, who generally favor civil marriage and burial, might offend Orthodox voters, who don’t.

This isn’t the sort of campaign Finkelstein is accustomed to, and it shows. Netanyahu, who admires and respects Finkelstein, has been running a campaign that repeatedly leaves him looking foolish. Much of the rest of the Likud leadership is in open rebellion. Finkelstein, judging by his Ma’ariv interview, is hurt, defensive and angry.

The greatest irony is that Netanyahu may well win this election, Finkelstein or no Finkelstein. The reason is the demographic strength of population groups — working-class Sephardim, Orthodox Jews, Russians — who will vote for him regardless of his image or record, because he isn’t Labor.

That fact — the deeply tribal attachment of Likud voters to the Likud, and their animosity toward Labor — is what prompted Yitzhak Mordechai and Amnon Shahak to form their Center Party. They hoped that a peace party without Labor’s baggage could unite the 75 percent of the population that supports the peace process but is divided in tribal loyalties.

What they didn’t count on was Labor voters’ tribal loyalty to Labor. The educated, affluent Ashkenazic voters who form Labor’s core constituency like to think of themselves as above such atavistic passions. They aren’t. They refused to budge. They are Israelis, and Israel is a deeply tribal society.

It’s that realization that’s stunned American friends of Israel into silence. Israel’s inner divisions have surfaced this year with a vengeance. Voters, it appears, will follow tribal loyalties over all else. This is not the Israel that Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, were taught to admire for a half century. It’s something harsher, more foreign, deeply troubling to the American mind.

Whoever wins the election, Americans and Israelis alike have a lot of soul-searching ahead of them.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.