2016-08-17 / Mideast

Trump supporters launch push for votes in Israel

By ANDREW TOBIN JTA


Donald Trump speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. 
JTA photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. Donald Trump speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. JTA photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. JERUSALEM—On behalf of Donald Trump, Republicans launched a get-out-the-vote campaign geared to Americans living in Israel. The initiative, which began last week, has unprecedented funding and local strategic support.

The effort by Republicans Overseas Israel, the main group supporting the party here, reflects its leaders’ conviction that American Israelis overwhelmingly back the GOP presidential nominee—and that their votes could even tip the election in his favor.

The group will target Americans here who hail from pivotal “swing states,” such as Florida and Pennsylvania. There are approximately 30,000 eligible voters in Israel from states that are likely to be close on Election Day, according to the Republicans, who say those votes could be instrumental in selecting the 45th president of the United States.

“This election promises to be close, and the many conservative Americans from swing states who are living in Israel could make the difference,” Marc Zell, the co-chair of the group and vice president of the parent Republican Overseas, told JTA. “[President George W.] Bush won the 2000 election based on 537 votes in a few southern Florida districts, if I’m not mistaken.”

Republicans Overseas Israel leaders see the country as a rare bastion of American- Jewish political conservatism. They estimate there are 300,000 to 400,000 eligible voters living in Israel, with the largest populations in Jerusalem, Ranaana, Modiin, Bet Shemesh and the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank.

Some 30 percent of Americans in Israel are religious Zionist, 20 to 25 percent are haredi Orthodox, and 15 percent are “traditional” religious, by their count.

The Republicans estimated 85 percent of Americans in Israel will vote for Trump. According to an exit poll conducted by another get-out-the-vote group, iVote Israel, that is the percentage that voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.

By contrast, in the United States, 69 percent of Jews voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, compared to 30 percent for Romney.

Merrill Oates, the Democrats Abroad vice chair for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, dismissed the Republicans Overseas Israel and iVote Israel estimates as “wildly exaggerated.” He questioned iVote Israel’s avowed non-partisanship, saying he knows reports that it has ties to the Republican Party to be true.

Oates said his experience suggests most American Israelis favor the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and that the 2012 numbers do not apply to this election, since the candidates are so different.

“People are very much concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and his reputation,” he told JTA. “They may have some disagreements policy-wise with Secretary Clinton, but they feel she is a reliable person who they can have confidence that she will steer the ship of state with a steady hand.”

Trump’s disparaging remarks about Muslims, Mexicans and the family of a Muslim-American soldier killed in combat— among other controversial statements he’s made on the campaign trail—have been criticized by many American Jewish groups, including Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. In December, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Trump for saying he would bar all Muslims from entering the United States.

Oates said Democrats Abroad, which facilitates American voting around the world, did not have alternative statistics about Americans voting in Israel, citing the lack of organization in the country at the moment and their historic focus on grassroots organizing over polling.

But a March poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank found that most Israelis prefer Clinton to Trump. When asked which of the two candidates would be “be better from the standpoint of Israeli interests,” 38 percent said Clinton and 28 percent said Trump. Only 49 percent of Israelis approved of President Barack Obama in 2011, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Eitan Charnoff, iVote Israel’s national director, said the group is indeed nonpartisan, and has staff members and volunteers from both parties, as well as some who he does not know how they affiliate.

Charnoff said iVote Israel estimates there are 200,000 eligible American voters in Israel, up from about 160,000 in 2008. (JTA)

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