The po­lit­i­cal rain­mak­ers

They aren’t house­hold names in Is­rael and cer­tainly not abroad, but these ad­vis­ers of top politi­cians are the big fac­tors be­hind the scenes

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By GIL HOFF­MAN

The Mer­riam-Web­ster dic­tionary de­fines a rain­maker as “a per­son whose in­flu­ence can ini­ti­ate progress or en­sure suc­cess.” The word is said to come from the Na­tive Amer­i­can prac­tice of danc­ing to en­cour­age the gods to send rain needed to grow crops.

Nowa­days, that dance is done by movers and shak­ers be­hind the scenes who help top politi­cians grow their po­lit­i­cal sup­port by plant­ing the right ideas and strate­gies.

The word tends to be used for ad­vis­ers who pur­posely keep a low pro­file, both de­spite their suc­cess and be­cause of it. You won’t find too much about them if you search for them on the In­ter­net, but they are well-known to the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who de­pend on their ad­vice and are awed or de­stroyed by them.

They are the un­sung he­roes and vil­lains of the April 9 elec­tion, which with all due re­spect to Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, would un­doubt­edly look very dif­fer­ent were it not for their hard work.

Most of them re­fused to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, not out of dis­re­spect and not be­cause they are gen­uinely ex­tremely busy ahead of an elec­tion, but due to well-thought-out strat­egy to keep their bosses in the lime­light and them­selves in the dark.

The fol­low­ing are among the most suc­cess­ful of Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal rain­mak­ers.

Click “Shalom Shlomo” on search en­gines, and you find a sci­en­tist in Texas, a Jerusalem yeshiva and a song about peace, or you are asked if you meant to search for the Shalom Se­same videos with Se­same Street char­ac­ters about Is­rael and Jewish hol­i­days.

Try look­ing on Google images, and you won’t see his face un­til the 22nd row.

Nev­er­the­less, Shlomo is ar­guably one of the most suc­cess­ful and sought-af­ter po­lit­i­cal strate­gists work­ing in Is­rael to­day.

Raised in the north­ern Gil­boa Re­gional Coun­cil, Shlomo now lives on a small moshav south of Nazareth called Bal­fouria, where the pop­u­la­tion is fewer than 500 peo­ple. Nev­er­the­less, his home is a known gath­er­ing place for politi­cians from across the po­lit­i­cal spectrum.

Shlomo worked for Ne­tanyahu for what is thought to be longer than al­most any­one ever has, from 2005 to 2011, prov­ing his stay­ing power. He left for Bayit Ye­hudi in 2013 to go help his for­mer co-worker in Ne­tanyahu’s of­fice, Naf­tali Ben­nett.

Yair Lapid wooed him to Yesh Atid when elec­tions were called and he now is among the team of strate­gists guid­ing Blue and White, which he helped es­tab­lish. Credit has been given to Gabi Ashke­nazi for bring­ing about the merger be­tween Gantz and Lapid, but it was re­ally Shlomo who did the dirty work to cre­ate the mega-party, per­suad­ing the dif­fer­ent party lead­ers that the merger was es­sen­tial to have a chance to de­feat Ne­tanyahu.

That was far from the only po­lit­i­cal deal Shlomo has made. He built the al­liance be­tween Ben­nett and Lapid in 2013, he got Ayelet Shaked the Jus­tice port­fo­lio in 2015 and he as­sisted in or­ga­niz­ing the IDF re­servists who helped bring down Ehud Olmert.

In 2008, it was Shlomo who pre­vented Kadima leader Tzipi Livni from es­tab­lish­ing a coali­tion fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tion of then-prime min­is­ter Ehud Olmert. Work­ing be­hind the scenes, Shlomo made deals with the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox par­ties ac­cord­ing to which they would wait for elec­tions and then join Ne­tanyahu.

“Shalom Shlomo has had a hand in ev­ery ma­jor Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal devel­op­ment of the last 15 years,” a for­mer col­league said.

Shlomo is known for be­ing dis­creet.

“He doesn’t talk about what he does with any­one,” an­other for­mer col­league ex­plained. “That is why politi­cians from across the spectrum – from the Right and Left – come to seek his ad­vice. They know they can trust him.”

Be­tween elec­tions, he serves as Is­rael di­rec­tor of busi­ness devel­op­ment of Publi­cis Groupe, the world’s third-largest ad­ver­tis­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions group. Founded in 1926, Publi­cis Groupe counts over 80,000 em­ploy­ees and is present in over 100 coun­tries around the world. At Publi­cis, he works with a num­ber of multi­na­tional com­pa­nies, help­ing them break into and nav­i­gate the com­pli­cated Is­raeli mar­ket.

One client, for ex­am­ple, is tele­com com­pany Part­ner, owned by Is­raeli-Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire Haim Sa­ban. He also serves as the strate­gic ad­viser for the His­tadrut la­bor union, one of the largest and most pow­er­ful en­ti­ties in Is­rael, and the Mac­cabi Haifa soc­cer clubs, one of the strong­est sports brands in the coun­try.

“He has in­cred­i­ble charm, charisma and a sense of hu­mor,” an­other for­mer col­league said. “Any meet­ing he en­ters, he de­stroys with his comic tal­ents. He is very sharp and knows how to build long-term steps with domi­noes that lead to an­other. He can please ev­ery­one, be­cause ev­ery­one likes him so much. Peo­ple know that if he is speak­ing for his boss, he can de­liver.”

When he be­came ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Naf­tali Ben­nett re­ceived a key piece of ad­vice from his chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi: to stop go­ing to bar mitz­vahs and sim­chas of Bayit Ye­hudi cen­tral com­mit­tee mem­bers.

The ad­vice was in­tended to en­able Ben­nett to con­cen­trate on his work in the min­istry and as a mem­ber of the se­cu­rity cab­i­net.

Not only did that ad­vice bear fruit in pro­fes­sional suc­cess for Ben­nett, it even­tu­ally led to his de­par­ture from Bayit Ye­hudi and the for­ma­tion of the New Right, a move that Gan-Zvi over­saw as the main ar­chi­tect and driver be­hind the new party.

Af­ter be­ing less be­holden to the ac­tivists and ap­pa­ratchiks of the old Na­tional Re­li­gious Party, it was eas­ier for Ben­nett to leave on what many pre­dict will be a stopover on the way to the Likud and a run for prime min­is­ter.

The fact that Ben­nett adopted both the ad­vice on the bar mitz­vahs and the de­ci­sion to leave Bayit Ye­hudi proves that he has put his com­plete trust in Gan-Zvi, who is the clos­est man to Ben­nett and runs his of­fice with an iron fist.

Gan-Zvi lives in Gush Etzion. He served in the Egoz com­mando unit, grew up in Haifa, earned busi­ness and law de­grees at Bar-Ilan Univer­sity and worked for Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat be­fore join­ing Ben­nett when he en­tered pol­i­tics in 2012.

The de­par­ture from Bayit Ye­hudi to a new party gave Gan-Zvi more cen­tral­ized power. He played a key role in es­tab­lish­ing the party, build­ing the list of can­di­dates and has over­seen strat­egy for the New Right’s cam­paign.

Over the last four years, Gan Zvi led the re­forms car­ried out in the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry. While Ben­nett might set the pol­icy, without Gan-Zvi at his side, it sim­ply wouldn’t hap­pen, a for­mer col­league said.

Gan-Zvi worked di­rectly with the Fi­nance Min­istry and se­cured hun­dreds of mil­lions of shekels in ad­di­tional bud­gets for the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry that led to the se­ries of re­forms Ben­nett has car­ried out over the last four years – smaller classes, a sec­ond as­sis­tant in kin­der­gartens, math and English pro­grams and more.

For­mer and cur­rent col­leagues de­scribe him as smart, cre­ative and a top-notch man­ager.

Gan-Zvi main­tains close ties across the po­lit­i­cal spectrum and su­per­vises mes­sag­ing to the me­dia to max­i­mize their im­pact. One of his strate­gic suc­cesses has been es­tab­lish­ing an al­liance be­tween Ben­nett and the haredi par­ties, a re­la­tion­ship that Gan-Zvi works hard at main­tain­ing.

“He is the ul­ti­mate loy­al­ist,” one for­mer col­league said. “One of his most im­por­tant traits is his abil­ity to get things done.”

Com­pletely loyal to Ben­nett, Gan-Zvi shuns pub­lic­ity for him­self but does much of the hard work of im­ple­ment­ing Ben­nett’s vi­sion. He also rarely hes­i­tates to take the flak for his boss when needed. That work built his rep­u­ta­tion as a bull­dozer with a bright fu­ture in busi­ness or pub­lic ser­vice.

Most re­fused to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle... due to well-thought-out strat­egy to keep their bosses in the lime­light and them­selves in the dark

When key Ne­tanyahu staff left in re­cent years, the me­dia por­trayed it as if his bureau was fall­ing apart, but sources close to him now say it was part of a strate­gic move to em­power young ad­vis­ers who bet­ter un­der­stand how the world has changed.

Ne­tanyahu ad­vis­ers Yonatan Urich, Topaz Luk and Shir Co­hen have in com­mon that they are in their late 20s and early 30s and served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit with Ne­tanyahu’s son Yair, but deny hav­ing ties with him that led to their jobs.

“Ev­ery­one is in his po­si­tion be­cause of his tal­ents,” one of them told The Jerusalem Post.

Urich in par­tic­u­lar was a pro­tégé of then-IDF spokesman Avi Be­nayahu, who said they learned a lot from each other, even though their views on pol­i­tics are ex­act op­po­sites. He helped Benyahu form the Spokesman’s Unit’s new me­dia depart­ment and taught him how to use so­cial me­dia.

“He is among the most tal­ented peo­ple in Is­raeli pol­i­tics,” Be­nayahu said. “It’s in­cred­i­ble how much Ne­tanyahu trusts him. Ne­tanyahu re­al­ized that any spokesman above 30 is worth­less be­cause he didn’t grow up with the In­ter­net. He is a new model of spokesman, very ded­i­cated, loyal and pro­fes­sional, but able to tell the prime min­is­ter be­hind closed doors that he is wrong. He loves Ne­tanyahu and the prime min­is­ter loves him back.”

When Urich got mar­ried last year, Ne­tanyahu and his wife Sara sur­prised many by stay­ing there for the en­tire wed­ding. Urich is known for his cyn­i­cism on so­cial me­dia and doesn’t hes­i­tate to lash out at Ne­tanyahu’s po­lit­i­cal ri­vals.

“He is the top new me­dia ex­pert in Is­rael,” a source close to Ne­tanyahu said. “He made Bibi’s Facebook page a me­dia out­let. He cre­ates dis­course on­line, know­ing how to take ad­van­tage of so­cial me­dia to cre­ate a buzz and steer the dis­course to the prime min­is­ter’s ad­van­tage.”

A na­tive of Kfar Saba, Urich went to the Har Etzion yeshiva and worked on the IDF web­site, the re­li­gious-Zion­ist Kippa site and the Makor Ris­hon and NRG news sites.

He was cred­ited for chang­ing Ne­tanyahu’s mind on He­bron shooter Elor Azaria.

“Urich’s fu­ture is bright,” Be­nayahu said.

Be­fore en­ter­ing pol­i­tics, Gantz met with many cam­paign strate­gists be­fore de­cid­ing to hire the firm of Ben-Horin and Alexan­drovich, whose CEOs Tal Alexan­drovich Segev and Itay Ben Horin have been run­ning his cam­paign.

Alexan­drovich Segev was born and raised in Tel Aviv and has been in the me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions busi­ness for 21 years. She started off as a soldier in the mil­i­tary re­porters’ sec­tion of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, then worked at the La­bor and Wel­fare Min­istry while com­plet­ing an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem, where she later also earned a mas­ter’s de­gree.

Alexan­drovich Segev worked at the His­tadrut and served as the me­dia ad­viser to the then-min­is­ter of sci­ence, cul­ture and sport Matan Vil­nai. She joined her firm as a part­ner in 2008 and has since run suc­cess­ful cam­paigns for Shelly Yaci­movich as La­bor leader and Avi Nis­senkorn as head of the His­tadrut.

While her firm rep­re­sents more than 100 clients, in­clud­ing govern­ment min­istries, large com­pa­nies, col­leges and banks, she is most proud of cam­paigns that added more than 100,000 po­ten­tial donors to the Ezer Mizion bone mar­row donor data­base.

“Benny came through word of mouth,” Alexan­drovich Segev said. “We work for peo­ple we be­lieve in, who do things right. That’s why Benny was such a good fit for us. It has been an honor and a joy to work with him.”

Un­der her lead­er­ship, Blue and White’s cam­paign has fo­cused on the abil­i­ties and ef­fec­tive­ness of the party’s lead­er­ship, es­pe­cially on se­cu­rity is­sues. A rare woman in her field, she works at least 18 hours a day and still finds time for who she de­scribes as two “un­der­stand­ing” daugh­ters, ages 17 and 14.

“I am first and fore­most a pro­fes­sional with ex­pe­ri­ence and abil­ity,” she said. “Be­ing a woman is part of who I am. It’s im­pres­sive that Benny lis­tens to the many women on our team. Our voice is be­ing heard.”

It does not bother her that she is not a house­hold name in Is­rael and not known at all out­side the coun­try.

“What mat­ters is the leader, not the ad­viser,” she said. “We are less known for what we do, but that’s on pur­pose. It’s the essence that mat­ters. We can’t for­get that we are here for a leader and a path that we need to ad­vance. I am lucky to work in a job I love. Ev­ery day I work I ap­pre­ci­ate that – and am very thank­ful for it.”

The April 9 elec­tion would un­doubt­edly look very dif­fer­ent were it not for their hard work

The prime min­is­ter usu­ally deals di­rectly with his cab­i­net min­is­ters and tends to have lit­tle con­tact with their ad­vis­ers.

That was why Ne­tanyahu raised eye­brows in Novem­ber 2016, when dur­ing a speech at the an­nual con­fer­ence of haredi news­pa­per Hamodia, he asked, “Where is Babchik?” and com­pli­mented him.

Babchik was raised in Bnai Brak, where he was a school­mate of Shlomo Zvi, the son of the cur­rent grand rabbi of the Ger­rer Has­sidic sect, Yaakov Aryeh Al­ter. That led to him be­com­ing close to the rebbe and his emis­sary to the po­lit­i­cal world.

He started work­ing for Yaakov Litz­man when he first be­came deputy health min­is­ter a decade ago and dur­ing the months when Litz­man re­signed in protest and was tech­ni­cally out­side the min­istry, Babchik ran it un­der the health min­is­ter, Ne­tanyahu.

“In the haredi world, they usu­ally don’t let young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced ad­vis­ers get that close,” said Ra­dio Kol Chai and Ac­tu­alic web­site po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent Is­rael Ohaion. “Top ad­vis­ers are usu­ally in their 60s and ex­pe­ri­ence is usu­ally val­ued be­yond skills, but he proved the op­po­site. He has achieved what he has be­cause of his skills.”

To­gether with Litz­man’s spokesman, Yaakov Izak, Babchik helped give Litz­man a more pos­i­tive, less ex­treme im­age among the gen­eral pub­lic by mak­ing him open to the non-haredi pub­lic as health min­is­ter and deputy min­is­ter.

Babchik han­dles Litz­man’s po­lit­i­cal crises, ne­go­ti­a­tions and sen­si­tive de­ci­sions. He was heav­ily in­volved in the haredi draft bill and pushed for the Min­i­mar­kets Law. He im­proved re­la­tions be­tween haredim and then-de­fense min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man.

“With his en­ergy and ac­ces­si­bil­ity, Babchik is seen as a pos­si­ble fu­ture leader of Agu­dat Yis­rael,” Ohaion said. “He is es­pe­cially loved in the home of Ger­rer Rebbe and that’s what mat­ters.”

When the chief strate­gist of Shas in the cur­rent cam­paign, Avi Lerner, in­vited Liat Nizri to in­ter­view for post of cam­paign spokesper­son, it sur­prised her, be­cause she is a woman and re­li­gious Zion­ist, not haredi.

Nizri, who has a suc­cess­ful strate­gic con­sult­ing firm, re­ceived of­fers from mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies, but de­cided to go with the big­gest chal­lenge.

She is iden­ti­fied with the Likud af­ter work­ing for politi­cians like Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Is­rael Katz and Ra­mat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama Ha­co­hen, when he was Knes­set Eco­nom­ics Com­mit­tee chair­man. She ran his suc­cess­ful 2018 cam­paign for mayor and the cam­paigns of Gila Gam­liel and other can­di­dates in the re­cent Likud pri­mary.

But she also grew up in a Sephardi fam­ily in the north­ern city of Ma’alot, where Shas is strong. Her brother Raz Nizri has risen quickly through the ranks to be­come deputy at­tor­ney-gen­eral and she is also a fast riser.

“I never felt dis­crim­i­nated against, but in re­cent years I see more that I have to prove my­self in a male-dom­i­nated Tel Avi­vian snob world,” Nizri said. “Women do the ma­jor­ity of the work run­ning cam­paigns for prod­ucts and cul­ture, but with pol­i­tics there are many more men. I have no doubt it will change. But when a woman uses her el­bows, they don’t call her as­sertive. They use bad words.”

Nizri, who now lives in the Tel Aviv sub­urb Gi­vat Sh­muel, is a sin­gle mother, so she has had to make sac­ri­fices to suc­ceed that she said have not been easy.

“I am part of a team of strate­gists and usu­ally the only woman in the room, but ev­ery­one is com­pli­men­tary,” she said. “I wasn’t cho­sen be­cause I am a woman but be­cause of my ex­pe­ri­ence and skills. [In­te­rior Min­is­ter Aryeh] Deri is sharp, de­ci­sive and prac­ti­cal, and I like that about him. He is a good lis­tener and un­der­stands quickly.”

Shalom Shlomo, 42, Blue and White strate­gist

(Miriam Al­ster/Flash 90) (Flash 90/Yaa­cov Co­hen)

Tal Gan-Zvi, 37, Naf­tali Ben­nett’s chief of staff (FROM LEFT) Lead­ing the charge: Shalom Shlomo walks ahead of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and En­ergy Min­is­ter Yu­val Steinitz (left). TAL GAN-ZVI stands be­hind Naf­tali Ben­nett dur­ing a visit to haredi author­ity Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.

Tal Alexan­drovich Segev, 45, Benny Gantz’s strate­gist

Yonatan Urich, 31, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s spokesman

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

Moti Babchik, 36, Yaakov Litz­man’s chief of staff ‘WHERE IS Babchik?’: Moti Babchik stands be­hind Yaakov Litz­man.

Liv­nat Nizri, 42, Shas strate­gist RIS­ING FAST: Liv­nat Nizri. (Left: Cour­tesy; Right: Marc Is­rael Sellem)

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