With over 100,000 American Israelis eligible to vote, registration fever is at an all time high in Israel. In the 2000 election, only 14,000 of those eligible registered. This year, both parties expect those numbers to double, based on registration so far.
The 100,000 number puts Israel among the top three ex-pat voting blocs, along with Canada and Mexico, which have larger numbers of voters, but lower voter participation. But since there’s a possibility that this presidential election, like the previous one, could be decided by a few thousand votes, voters abroad are a potent force. As a result, both the Democrats and Republicans are making efforts to woo American voters in the Jewish state.
According to Mark Zober, head of the Israeli branch of Democrats Abroad who was speaking before a meeting of Israel’s International Foreign Affairs Council and the World Jewish Congress American, ex-pat voters living in Israel should vote for John Kerry because “Kerry and Edwards have a spotless record on Israel,” whereas a vote for President Bush “will put Israel’s fate into the hands of Arab oil money and evangelical Christians.”
A slight titter from the English-speaking Jerusalem audience caused Zober to acknowledge, “I know I'm alone here..” but it didn't stop the lifelong Democrat from launching into a litany of anti-Bush propaganda that sounded suspiciously like a list of talking points he’d just pulled off the fax machine sent over from the Democratic National Committee.
Everything from the fact that President Bush has never visited Israel, to the refusal of the Bush administration to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem came under attack from Zober. But the repetitive theme of his remarks was that “Bush has no foreign policy--his only commitments are to his friends--Arab oil money and Christian evangelicals.”
Zober’s counterpart, Mark Zell of Republicans Abroad, won hearty applause when he countered that Zober’s presentation “was about as informative as a Michael Moore documentary.”
Zober spoke with passion, but later acknowledged to the Jerusalem Post that he expects only 60 per cent of the members of his Democrats Abroad group in Israel to vote for Kerry.
According to a local Republicans Abroad official, around 35 per cent of votes cast from Israel last election went to George W. Bush. He expects a significant majority will back Bush this time around.
In all likelihood, those votes won't be coming from the Arab sector. A US consular official in Tel Aviv told a Haaretz reporter that registration among the several thousand Arab Americans, concentrated mostly in Ramallah and Bethlehem, has been slow. According to one Bethlehem community leader, most Arabs with American citizenship don't see much difference between Bush and Kerry. A significant percentage, he says, will cast their ballots for independent candidate, Ralph Nader, an American with Lebanese roots, who supports the right of return of Palestinians who fled their villages in 1948.
But back to the pitch made by the local party representatives: Zell, of the Republicans Abroad, could barely contain his incredulity at the things he had heard from the Democratic representative. “What chutzpa for you to call President Bush a waffler!” he declared, pointing to the consistent worldview and resulting policies that have guided the President since 9/11.
“President Bush led his administration into a new world after those attacks, and has rewritten the agenda for foreign policy for the next decades. We can expect an implementation of that agenda over the next four years.”
“What is the Democrat's view of dealing with terror?” Zell pressed on. “Kerry’s going to TALK to them?? Are you kidding??”
“All the Democrats can do is hearken back to the Clinton years, or even Carter’s era,” Zell continued.
“How could you seriously suggest that Arab oil money is dictating policy, when he risked alienating all those Arab oil magnates by going to war in Iraq?” Zell asked.
Another speaker with US experience added his supposedly non-partisan views to the debate. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Zalman Shoval, diplomatically pointed out the different weltanschaung of the two candidates.
After 9/11 “Bush grasped that we're in a different world altogether. There’s no less danger from radical Islamic fundamentalism than from National Socialism,” Shoval asserted, “and in order to save the world, Islamic terrorism must be destroyed, not assuaged.”
“We'll have to wait and see how the Democratic candidate will pronounce himself on these things,” Shoval added.
Defending Bush’s actions in going to war in Iraq, Shoval commented that Sadaam Hussein was obviously “a supporter of terror,” had killed thousands of people, and, as was well known in Israeli intelligence circles, had the capacity and “in-house expertise” to build WMD. “It was only a matter of time until they exploited that capacity, either to use it themselves or export it to other terror groups,” Shoval explained. Moving to the question of the Iranian threat, Shoval, who served in Washington during the Clinton administration, said that the administration “neglected to some extent dealing with this problem.” This despite having been warned by Israeli intelligence that the Russians were supplying nuclear know-how to Iran, he claimed.
“I’d be less worried if statements by Kerry and Edwards with regards to how they’d deal with Iran were not so much in line with how the Europeans are acting...” Shoval continued. It's a major concern for Israel, he said.
Shoval unequivocally called Kerry a friend of Israel. “But let’s not overemphasize the personal friendships,” he warned. “Let’s look at actual achievements.” Shoval explained that while the Bush/Baker administration was widely considered decidedly unfriendly toward Israel, nevertheless “in terms of achievements it was not a bad period.”
Contrast that with the Clinton years, Shoval noted. “We had very warm relations but has Israel benefited in concrete terms from it?” he asked. “Look at the record,” he cautioned.
A few questions from the audience gave a pretty good inkling of where this group would be casting its votes. “How come Kerry didn’t mention Israel once at the convention?” one American Israeli asked the Democratic representative. “Was it because he’s afraid of alienating those Moslem votes in the swing states?”
But the final question of the evening, asked by a representative of the Embassy of South Korea, brought a sly smile to the face of an Arab waiter who had remained in the room to listen to the discussion. “I know Jews make up less than 3 per cent of the American population, but they seem very influential. Could you please explain the influence of the Jewish community in the elections,” asked the perplexed diplomat.
But with 100,000 votes in the balance, that’s no laughing matter.
Judy Lash Balint is an award-winning Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times. www.jerusalemdiaries.com.