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‘Bibi’s Brain,’ Arthur Finkelstein, Dead at 72

Known in Israel as “Doctor Fear,” the political strategist gave the prime minister his 1996 upset victory

Liel Leibovitz
August 21, 2017
Israel's Government Press Office
Israel's Government Press Office

The most influential writer in Israel’s history, arguably, isn’t Amos Oz or David Grossman or A.B. Yehoshua—it’s Arthur Finkelstein. The political strategist, who died this weekend at 72, was the author of a four-word campaign slogan that delivered Benjamin Netanyahu his 1996 victory and changed Israeli politics and culture forever.

To understand his impact, you’d need to consider how hopeless Netanyahu’s prospects looked just a few months before his electoral ascendance. He took over the Likud in 1993, and whereas Labor—presided over by the second coming of Yitzhak Rabin and aglow with the promise of making peace with the Palestinians—was seen as exciting and dynamic, Likud was perceived as a retirement home for political has-beens, washed-up old-timers like David Levy and Ariel Sharon. Bibi eked out a victory in the party’s primaries, tarnished by a television appearance in which he claimed that he was being blackmailed by an unnamed competitor—most likely Levy himself—who claimed to have a sex tape of Netanyahu and a woman who wasn’t his wife. As Rabin launched the Oslo Accords, Bibi presided over shouty rallies that called the peace process a disaster. And when Rabin was assassinated, in November of 1995, the election of his immediate successor, Shimon Peres, seemed all but certain.

Peres believed it, too, which is why he decided to move up the election. Coming less than eight months after Rabin’s death, he believed, it was impossible for Israelis to vote for anyone but Rabin’s right-hand man in peacemaking.

Enter Arthur Finkelstein, stage right. Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents—his father, Morris, drove a yellow cab—he got his start in politics in Queens College, where he helped Ayn Rand on a radio show and developed the ideological convictions that would guide him his entire life. He volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s doomed campaign in 1964, worked on Reagan’s unsuccessful bid in 1976, and, by 1980, had learned from his mistakes.

“The most overwhelming fact of politics is what people do not know,” he told college students in a rare 2011 public appearance in Prague. “In politics, it’s what you perceive to be true that’s true, not truth. If I tell you one thing is true, you will believe the second thing is true. A good politician will tell you a few things that are true before he will tell you a few things that are untrue, because you will then believe all the things he has said, true and untrue.”

And it was there, in the dusk between truth and untruth, that political brilliance lay: Finkelstein called his strategy “rejectionist voting,” and he set out to prove it on Jacob K. Javits. In 1979, the celebrated Republican was diagnosed with ALS, which led to a challenge from a relatively obscure Long Island Republican named Alfonse D’Amato. Working for D’Amato, Finkelstein ruthlessly portrayed Javits as too old and too sick, not only literally but metaphorically as well—it was time for a more robust, more right-wing Republican. D’Amato won, a surprise that shocked many; Finkelstein had perfected his method.

He’d worked with many Republican candidates throughout his career—Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and Orrin Hatch are just a few—and helped make the word “liberal” a liability. By the time he was recruited by Netanyahu, he’d perfected his methodology.

It included highly complex polling and data analysis, but its beating heart was always the ability to deliver a few devastating lines that portrayed his political opponents in the worst imaginable light. Running against Peres, reality handed him an assist: The first few months of 1996 were marked by repeated Palestinian suicide bombings, killing scores of Israelis and making security the top campaign issue.

Finkelstein needed just a few words to capture what many Israelis were feeling: Accompanied by gruesome images of burning buses and wounded victims in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attacks, an ad for Netanyahu delivered the following slogan—“there’s no peace, there’s no security, there’s no reason to vote for Peres.”

It caught on, but Finkelstein wasn’t done. Accusing Peres of being an incompetent leader was a rational argument; those never won elections. What he needed was a knock-out punch, something that convinced Israelis that Peres wasn’t just inept but insidious. By all accounts a warm and jovial man in real-life—he would remove his shoes immediately upon entering a meeting, and march around in his sox, smiling and telling jokes and anecdotes—Finkelstein paced about in Netanyahu’s office until he heard someone toss around an idea he liked. It was a four-word epic: “Peres Will Divide Jerusalem.”

And with that, Labor’s long-time politician, a former aid to Ben-Gurion, a veteran Zionist with many accomplishments, was turned into a traitor to his people who would surrender sovereignty over Judaism’s holiest city. It worked: With the narrowest of margins, less than 30,000 votes, Netanyahu won.

After that, Israelis, those who had voted for Bibi and those who couldn’t believe he was their new prime minister, were united in their admiration for Finkelstein. Schoolchildren who could barely name the ministers in the cabinet knew his name, and reporters often referred to him as “Doctor Fear,” a Strangelove on the Mediterranean. He’d advised other Israeli politicians since, and had his share of defeats, but those did nothing to dim his glow. He’ll always be the man who gave rise to Bibi, the once and current prime minister whose politics and personality are synonymous, in so many ways, with Israel’s.

Finkelstein is survived by his husband, two daughters, a granddaughter, and two brothers.

“I would always say, ‘Arthur, do you realizes how much we’re changing history?’ ” his colleague George Birnbaum told The New York Times. “He would say, ‘I don’t know how much we’re changing history; we’re touching history.’”

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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