Last Hanukkah, veteran American-Jewish political consultant Mark Mellman spent an evening at the home of Yair Lapid. Mellman, who played a major behind-the-scenes role in the upset success of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party in January’s Knesset elections, saw the men of the Lapid household  – Yair, and sons Yoav and Lior — wearing skullcaps as they lit their menorahs, and saying the blessings correctly.

“I told Yair, ‘This is funny, because if I filmed this scene and showed it to the average Jew in America, the first thing they would say is: That family is very religious,’” Mellman recalls. “Yair’s been called a lot of things before, but never religious,” he adds in a fit of laughter. “Judaism is infused in his life in a very positive way. That’s a wonderful thing.”

Mark Mellman (photo credit: courtesy)

Mark Mellman (photo credit: courtesy)

Many Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox Israelis are wary of Yesh Atid, not only because the party seeks to end the blanket draft exemptions for yeshiva students but also because its chairman is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the late head of the (defunct) staunchly secularist Shinui party. But Mellman, who is Orthodox, has no such reservations: “Yair has tremendous respect for Torah study and has even said that there should be more of it in secular schools in Israel. Number two, he clearly has a very different attitude than his father did.”

A member of the modern Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue — within walking distance of the White House — Mellman says everyone in his shul was “very excited” to learn he was working for Lapid.

“We have a much more open community in America. We live in a different world here,” Mellman told The Times of Israel during a recent telephone interview.

When it comes to politics, the Mellman Group he heads feels at home in Israel, the US and beyond, he says. Along with helping Yesh Atid gain 19 Knesset seats, making it the second-largest faction in parliament and arguably the key player in the current effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government, he has worked with dozens of US congressmen, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as well as politicians in Europe and Latin America. Indeed, he spoke in our interview from Albania, where he’s deep into his next campaign.

The Princeton- and Yale-educated Mellman was not the only American-Jewish political strategist involved in the January 22 Knesset elections. In fact, he was the least famous of three. Conservative strategist Arthur Finkelstein advised the Yisrael-Beytenu slate and was reportedly behind the idea to have the two parties run on a joint ticket, predicting at least 42 seats (the number they had between them in the last Knesset; they wound up with a disappointing 31). And ex-Clinton administration pollster Stan Greenberg had a major role in the Labor Party’s campaign (which also failed to soar, bringing 15 seats, compared to the 13 it won in 2009).

Only Mellman managed to surpass expectations. He says internal polling showed Yesh Atid would do better than most surveys had predicted, but didn’t expect 19 seats. Even after the first exit polls indicated precisely that, he refused to celebrate until the results were confirmed. A past victim of overly optimistic exit polls, he told party members not to get too excited either, at first. “My inclination was to say, wait until we know for sure. Once we knew for sure, we were all elated.”

So what did Yesh Atid do better than expected, and Likud-Beytenu worse? A little thrown by the question, Mellman takes a few moments to search for an answer, then says he was so focused on his own campaign that he didn’t pay that much heed to his competitors.

“They took a long time to get going,” he manages finally, but immediately acknowledges that Yesh Atid also launched its campaign relatively late in the game. “I don’t think they had a very powerful message,” Mellman adds of Likud-Beytenu. “The message that we had was powerful because of its overarching nature, in that it’s talking about the middle class,” he goes on. Likud-Beytenu was “talking about strength and so on.”

Ultimately, though, Mellman works his way to an answer that revolves around the party chief, his popularity, and the hard work he and the candidates put in for long months before election day. “Everything starts and ends with the candidate,” Mellman says, in response to a question about who was primarily responsible for Yesh Atid’s stellar debut performance. “The consultant’s role is to provide a little experience and a little guidance and to make sure that we remain focused. But it all starts and ends with what the candidate — or in this case, the candidates — want to be saying.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks to reporters outside his house on Friday, January 25 (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Yair Lapid (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Besides the persona of Yair Lapid — who was well-known to Israelis, and widely liked, as the host of a popular television news show — the main ingredients of Yesh Atid’s electoral success were a relevant message and the determination to disseminate it effectively, day after day, place after place, event after event, Mellman says.

Lapid, and later the candidates from his slate, met with “thousands, if not tens of thousands” of Israelis in countless parlor meeting to discuss the core issues of the party’s platform, such as its proposals for drafting Haredim into the army and lowering the cost of living. And the party struck a chord with voters, he repeats, mostly because it focused on issues important to the middle class.

The prospective Yesh Atid MKs “had an instinctive feel about what the middle class in Israel is concerned about. That was confirmed in polling; that really became the focus of the message: the middle class and concerns the middle class have about their economic positions, about burden-sharing. It really was a message about representing the middle class.”

For financial reasons, the main thrust of the Yesh Atid campaign was concentrated on the last few weeks before the election. Because it had no seats in the outgoing Knesset, the party had only seven minutes of television ads (as opposed to the established parties, which were allotted more airtime based on their strength in the last parliament). There were also no Yesh Atid billboards. Instead, the party reached out to the public through a concerted Internet advertising campaign and via media appearances.

“We had a very strong and resonant message, [but] most people didn’t hear it until we entered the campaign [late on]. We were always doing better than the public polls indicated, but we also made a lot of gains late in the game, because that’s when a lot of people heard our message for the first time.”

Lapid’s refusal to create a center-left-Arab block against Likud-Beytenu was a major factor too — drawing voters from the center-right. His post-election endorsement also practically guaranteed that Netanyahu would retain the premiership, but while it seems likely that Lapid will join the government, that’s not certain at the time of writing. Since he’s still advising Yesh Atid, Mellman won’t discuss the party’s current goals and strategies.

‘I think it is historic. I’ve smiled about it to myself quite often since then’

He also won’t discuss which job would best suit a cabinet minister Lapid. Since Yesh Atid won support for focusing on socioeconomic issues worrying the middle class, surely he shouldn’t become foreign minister? “I try not to do hypotheticals,” says Mellman.

Could Yesh Atid survive, even thrive in the opposition? “I often to say to my clients in the US, ‘I’m descended from prophets, but I myself was not endowed with that gift.’”

What Mellman will say is that Yesh Atid always made clear its conditions for entering the government: renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians — “that seems to be agreed,” he says, referring to Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni’s terms for joining the coalition last week — and the sharing of the national burden, via the military draft of the Haredim — which “has yet to be agreed to.”

And he does defend Lapid against charges that it was extraordinarily arrogant of the party leader to predict that he would become prime minister after the next elections. “Yesh Atid is committed to making change. We’re already seeing how difficult it is to make that change when you’re not in charge,” Mellman says. “The more members of Knesset you have, the easier it is for you to make a change. That’s just axiomatic in the system.”

Mellman is, naturally, optimistic that Yesh Atid will be able to foster genuine change for the better. But whatever the future has in store for it — centrist parties do tend to come and go rather quickly here — Mellman considers his work in the race for the 19th Knesset to be a career highlight. From zero seats to 19 on January 22 — almost a sixth of the parliament? “I think it is historic,” he says. “I’ve smiled about it to myself quite often since then.”