‘Yair’s an aggressive guy,’ says Yesh Atid’s campaign guru
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‘Yair’s an aggressive guy,’ says Yesh Atid’s campaign guru

US-Jewish strategist Mark Mellman on how he deals with the challenge of a second centrist party focusing on socioeconomic issues

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Mark Mellman. (photo credit: screenshot via YouTube)
Mark Mellman. (photo credit: screenshot via YouTube)

In last week’s season opener of “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s most popular satirical TV program, the anchor of a political roundtable asks a fictional Yair Lapid whether he fears competition from Moshe Kahlon, whose new centrist Kulanu list focuses on socioeconomic issues, just like his Yesh Atid does.

“Are you really going to vote for a trend party built around one person?” the would-be Lapid replies. “Didn’t you fall for this already once?” The show’s wannabe Kahlon retorts, addressing Lapid: “You already disappointed the people. Give others a chance to disappoint them too!”

Back in the real world, Yesh Atid’s campaign strategists indeed face a formidable challenge. The freshman party led by a charismatic television show host-cum-politician chairman and his promise of “new politics” was the surprise of the previous elections, winning 19 seats and becoming the Knesset’s second-largest party. But after a short stint in the government, in which Lapid served as finance minister until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unceremoniously fired him in December, Yesh Atid does not appear capable of repeating its stellar showing. Current polls predict between nine and 11 seats for the party.

After the January 2013 elections, veteran American-Jewish political consultant Mark Mellman was credited with playing a major behind-the-scenes role in Yesh Atid’s upset success. His company, the Mellman Group, won the American Association of Political Consultants’ award for “Best International Campaign.” The so-called Pollie Award is considered the Oscar of political consulting.

This year, Mellman, a Modern Orthodox Jew from Washington, DC, is working for Lapid again. The emergence of Kulanu — which appeals to more or less the same electorate — is just one of several elements that seem to make Yesh Atid’s life harder this time around. Many voters were indeed disappointed with the party’s performance in the Knesset, especially since it had raised the hope of “new politics.” But constant bickering within the coalition soon dominated the political headlines, not leaving much room for coverage of the party’s ostensible legislative successes.

“One of the reasons the satirists are talking about disappointment is because people don’t know what’s been achieved,” Mellman told The Times of Israel during a recent telephone interview. “That’s an important part of what we’re trying to do in the first stage of the campaign. Make people aware. By the time we’ll get to the end I don’t think you’ll be hearing satirists talking about disappointment.”

Yair Lapid, second from left in front row, with the rest of the Yesh Atid Knesset candidates, January 26, 2015. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Yair Lapid, second from left in front row, with the rest of the Yesh Atid Knesset candidates, January 26, 2015 (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Hesitant to reveal his strategy, Mellman sufficed with saying that the key to a repeat victory on March 17 lies in emphasizing the party’s accomplishments. The party’s website prominently lists several “completed reforms,” such as the abolishment of ministers without portfolio and the establishment of government medical centers.

In the 20th Knesset, Yesh Atid wants to “continue and deepen” the changes it started, Mellman said. “I don’t think that anybody could reasonably think that the whole system is going to change in 18 months.”

The party’s website also lists several legislative initiatives that are “stuck” because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked them. Besides emphasizing Yesh Atid’s accomplishments, the party’s campaign strategy also appears to include harsh attacks on the other parties.

Earlier this month, Lapid gave a belligerent speech in which he basically accused every single political party but his own of corruption. On January 26, as he officially presented the party’s campaign, he said that “if we really want to change something then there is no alternative but to put the knife between our teeth and fight for it. So that’s what we did. That’s what we’re doing. It’s a fight for our country.”

Yair Lapid, January 1, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Yair Lapid, January 1, 2015 (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Mellman, himself a soft-spoken man, believes in this kind of combative rhetoric. “Yair is a fighter, literally. He does kickboxing. So he’s an aggressive guy, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Accusing the established parties of fraud and nepotism is central to Yesh Atid’s self-understanding, Mellman suggested. “Yesh Atid is different from the other parties and making that difference clear is very important. Yesh Atid’s whole reason for being is to change politics, to change the way in which politics is done.”

Critics have pointed out that Lapid and his fellow Yesh Atid ministers were faithful member of the government, even defending the way Netanyahu ran last summer’s Gaza war, until the prime minister suddenly fired them. The minute the Yesh Atid ministers were dismissed they started attacking the government vociferously, which to some smacked of hypocrisy. Mellman disagrees.

“During wartime, a different ethos prevails. Lapid’s view is that it’s not really appropriate to be criticizing the government during a time of war.” There were “clear differences all along” between Netanyahu and Lapid, “that’s why the prime minister called new elections. It shouldn’t be any surprise to anybody that there are differences in opinion.”

Mellman rejects the theory that Lapid’s popularity took a hit during his two years as politician. Before the last elections, 25 to 200 people showed up to campaign events he headlined; today it’s between 500 and a thousand, he said. “They want meet him personally and hear what he has to say. The fact is that he’s still an enormous draw.”

Leader of the Kulanu political party Moshe Kahlon seen during a joint press conference with Rachel Azaria in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2015. (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Leader of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon in Jerusalem, January 6, 2015. (photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

And what about Kahlon’s Kulanu? The two parties do seem to woo the same voters in Israel’s middle class, and the former Likud minister can boast of the cellphone reform he led a few years ago and saves Israeli households substantial amounts of money every month. How can Yesh Atid, which has no similarly tangible achievement to show for itself, compete against the new centrist party on the block?

Once voters hear more about Yesh Atid’s accomplishments, “they’ll see the clear advantage here,” Mellman replied. “Secondly, there’s a depth and quality to the Yesh Atid slate. Two years ago these people didn’t have a lot of experience but they learned a lot… Kahlon has been around, but no one else on his list has.” Experience is worth a lot, he added, stressing, though, that attacking Kahlon’s will not be a special focus of Yesh Atid’s campaign strategy.

“At the end of the day, there is a broader and different agenda for Yesh Atid than for Kahlon. By and large, the things that Kahlon wants to do are part of what Yesh Atid is focused on, but Yesh Atid also has a somewhat broader focus.”

Yesh Atid would have done so much more if only it were given more time, Mellman said. Revolutionizing the cellphone market took more than 18 months, he added. “That’s just a fact.”

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