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Interview

Lapid’s US pollster sees 10 years of work come to ‘dramatic, emotional’ fruition

Mark Mellman, strategist for Yesh Atid and founder of Democratic Majority for Israel, believes new Israeli government can restore Jewish state’s bipartisan place in US politics

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L) and political strategist Mark Mellman in the Knesset before the swearing in of Israel's 36th government, June 13, 2021. (Yesh Atid)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L) and political strategist Mark Mellman in the Knesset before the swearing in of Israel's 36th government, June 13, 2021. (Yesh Atid)

American communications and strategic adviser Mark Mellman was alone at his Washington DC home on June 2 when the news broke in Ramat Gan, Israel.

From the sixth floor of the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel at around 11 p.m. local time, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid had called then-president Reuven Rivlin and informed him that they had succeeded in forming a government. A photo of the two signing a coalition agreement with Mansour Abbas, head of an Islamist party called Ra’am, and a clip of the two of them talking to the president on the phone soon surfaced on Twitter.

It was 4 p.m. in Washington, and Mellman was following developments intently.

“Honestly, it was very emotional. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. It was dramatic,” Mellman told The Times of Israel this week in a video call. “I had no one to toast with so I made a blessing” — the shehecheyanu blessing recited by Jews upon special occasions.

A week and a half later, Mellman, who has been Lapid’s strategic adviser for the past 10 years, was sitting in the Knesset VIP gallery and watching the proceedings, from Bennett’s inaugural speech to ministers taking their oaths of office.

Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas agree to form a coalition, to be joined by five other parties on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra’am)

“I saw all of the heckling from the Haredim, and Likud,” he said of the hectic session during which the designated prime minister found it hard to speak without interruption from the opposition. “It was what we call a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name)…  I thought it was a horrific display of disrespect to Bennett that was just uncalled for and unbelievable. I know the Knesset is a raucous place, but there’s a time and a place for everything, including good and decent behavior.”

The American consultant, who has been at Lapid’s side since the former journalist entered politics, claims to understand Israeli society from within. He makes frequent trips to the Jewish state and spends long hours on the phone and in video meetings with Lapid and Yesh Atid’s senior staff.

Mellman advises on media strategy and on political tactics based on research and polling. As head of the Mellman Group, which has extensive consulting experience, he has worked with numerous politicians from the Democratic Party and is considered one of the leading campaign advisers in the US.

He has worked with former Democratic Senate majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, and with multiple Democratic US Senators, members of the House of Representatives and governors. He also has other international clients besides Lapid, such as former South African president Jacob Zuma, former Colombian president César Gaviria, and Lulzim Basha, Albania’s opposition leader.

Yesh Atid political consultant Mark Mellman (photo credit: screenshot via YouTube)
Mark Mellman. (Screen capture/YouTube)

An active member of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, Mellman is also the founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group aiming to shore up support for the Jewish state in the Democratic Party and diminish anti-Zionist trends in the American political liberal left. DFMI opposes BDS groups, opposed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders to be the leader of the Democratic Party, and supported the Congressional candidacy of Elliott Engel, a longtime New York congressman who eventually lost his party primary to Israel critic Jamaal Bowman.

Speaking to The Times of Israel several weeks after the swearing-in ceremony that saw Lapid become foreign minister, Mellman said his relationships with the Yesh Atid leader and with Israel were different from his ties to other politicians and countries around the world.

“I am with Lapid since the beginning, so about 10 years. We even thought of the party name ‘Yesh Atid’ (There is a Future). That’s how far back I go,” he said.

Choosing his words carefully, as though still under campaign discipline, Mellman stresses that he does not take credit for himself in the success of forming the new government.

“The fact that Lapid was able to put together a government is just a striking testimony to his political and intellectual talents. There’s just no question about it,” he said.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity:

Times of Israel: You had the privilege of watching from close up the most complicated political situation in Israel’s history, the biggest political crisis we have ever known. Four election campaigns in two years. What were your thoughts?

Mark Mellman: That it had paralyzed the country. It had damaged the country’s image in the world in important ways. That kind of political conflict, the inability of the political system to reach a resolution is very, very dangerous. And to have it occur so many times.

You had a somewhat similar situation in Belgium, when for a year and a half they didn’t have a government and I’ve been told by a colleague there that, in the end, they compromised because politicians were worried that the people of Belgium would decide that they could go on very well without the politicians, that bureaucracy could just take over and keep going. Israel is not that kind of country, given the security situation, given the pandemic, given the recession, given all the things the country is dealing with — it’s not possible to go through extended periods of time without being able to make decisions.

When you got the election results on March 24, 2021, what did you think? The numbers were so complex. Were you discouraged?

Luckily, it was clear from the election that there were more MKs opposed to Netanyahu than pro-Netanyahu. That was very clear. The question was, could that alone bring this set of people together? And the truth is, there’s only one guy that could bring them all together. And that was Lapid, and he did so.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And just before that, during COVID restrictions on travel, he came to see you in DC. Quite an out-of-the-ordinary visit, I would say.

I meet people here all the time. So it’s not out of the ordinary for me, and he spoke to a number of people here. But, it was obviously harder for me. I couldn’t get to Israel — people from here couldn’t get to Israel [COVID restrictions banned non-Israelis from visiting]. So it was easier to meet here. I got my shots in January and was hoping to be able to be there by February or March for the election, but unfortunately, they didn’t let me in.

Back to the election results. Did you immediately understand that a coalition could not be formed through regular means?

Yes. It was a very complicated situation because in most elections the goal is just to get the most votes, but here we had to get the most votes consistent with the people who might join a coalition [and] them getting enough votes to pass the electoral threshold. So that’s a very difficult set of imperatives to balance and, you know, requires very careful thought, analysis and planning.

The strategy was to be very positive all the time. It’s very, very, challenging. In Israel, you also had COVID rules that we didn’t have here. You couldn’t go more than a kilometer away from houses [for a time], so we were operating under different rules and regulations.

On the other hand, there were lot of things that people didn’t see. Almost every single night, Lapid was on Zoom, speaking to hundreds of voters. He would talk a little bit, questions and answers, community by community. He literally met thousands of voters that wanted to hear his messages.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid opposition party, walks with supporters while campaigning a day before national elections in Haifa, Israel, Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A couple of years ago, after you started working with Lapid, you explained to me the imperative for Lapid to be right at the center of the political map, a “razor-thin exact location.” Would you say today that the attitude is a bit different, that he tends more to the left and in a liberal direction?

I don’t think that’s really true. In some sense, the right moved farther right. So maybe that means the center moved as well, but on fundamental ideological positions, I don’t think he’s really changed at all. And I think this is what people have seen about Lapid. That he is assiduously focused on what’s good for the country and puts his own ambitions second, and willing to really sacrifice his own ambitions for the good of the country.

It’s a pattern really. He did that with Blue and White, when he took the second place in order to have a chance of getting rid of Netanyahu, and then obviously [in the latest election] he had by far the most seats, but worked with Bennett to give him the premiership first in this rotation, in order to obtain a deal with him.

What do you think about the relationship between Israel and the United States, about the tensions with the Democratic Party?

First of all, there’s no question that Joe Biden has a long, strong pro-Israel record. As he often says, he’s met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. He has been engaged and involved in these issues for all of those years. I don’t know whether he’s met Bennett but Lapid has spent some significant time with him in the past.

We saw that during the Gaza conflict before the new government took place, he was strongly supporting Israel, even in the face of some criticism from the far-left here in the United States. So I give him a tremendous amount of credit for that. He and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken and Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin and the whole administration were enormously supportive of Israel.

And the relations with the rest of the Democratic Party, after the difficult relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu?

Netanyahu was seen as an ally of the Republican Party. That was a major irritant in the relationship between Israel and Democrats. With that irritant gone, the relationship is in a much better place than I think it would have been.

Obviously, Lapid is the foreign minister, so he’s in a great position to help nurture that relationship on both sides of the aisle. Lapid has relationships with Republicans. He’s met with Republican senators and Republican House members, as well as Democrats. But he understands the importance of bipartisan support, and I think he’s committed to making sure that that support remains bipartisan.

Then US president Donald Trump (left) welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

What should the Israeli government do to restore relations with the Democratic Party?

You have to keep in mind that the vast majority of Democratic elected officials are pro-Israel, we have a pro-Israel president, we have a pro-Israel vice president, a pro-Israel speaker of the House, we have a pro-Israel majority leader in the United States Senate, and they have proven that over decades.

There are some very loud voices that are clearly not pro-Israel. Those loud voices get much more attention than their numbers suggest they should, for a whole variety of reasons. But the fact that they get a lot of attention doesn’t mean that they’re reflecting the views of the majority of Democrats.

But look, we live in a highly polarized country where the left can’t talk to the right, the right can’t talk to the left, Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats on every issue, almost every issue becomes deeply polarized and deeply politicized. And so it’s really not a surprise that with messages coming from the right, for so many years, Israel became also a polarized issue. Now we have an opportunity for that message to come from the center, And I think that’s going to be a much easier relationship to navigate.

What would you advise Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ahead of his trip to Washington?

It’s not my place to give the prime minister advice, but I’ll say this: For both Democrats and Republicans, one of the critically important dimensions is that people, Americans, Democrats and Republicans, have to believe that Israel is committed to peace. That is absolutely essential.

And I think former prime minister Netanyahu, by some of his words and deeds, called that commitment into question for many Democrats. And for some Republicans as well — they’re more quiet about it, but in private some of them will say the same thing.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivers televised remarks at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 22, 2021. (Flash90)

Have you met Prime Minister Bennett?

There were a couple receptions and meetings right after the swearing-in that I went to, and I talked to the prime minister for a short while.

What do you think of the wave of antisemitic attacks against Jews in the United States?

We see that all over the world, unfortunately. It’s a serious problem. The Biden administration is very serious about confronting it. We’ve heard directly from the president on the issue. We’ve heard from Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas who is, by the way, Jewish.

I think that the administration is very aware of that rising antisemitism, and they’re doing everything they can to tamp it down. However, while there have been very serious antisemitic incidents in a lot of places in this country, and I don’t mean to diminish them at all, most Jews walk around most of the time without being assaulted. Now, nobody should have that fear of assault but it’s important for people to understand exactly what’s going on. We’re not living through a Kristallnacht here.

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