The latest front in the battle between Barack Obama and John McCain for Florida is in Israel.
From Tel Aviv’s beachside bars to the red-roofed houses of West Bank settlements, the presidential candidates’ supporters are wooing expatriate American voters. They’re especially interested in those from the Sunshine State.
Israel is the only foreign country that is both a campaign issue for the Nov. 4 election and a potentially significant trove of votes for a swing state. Democratic and Republican activists predict Americans in Israel will cast record numbers of ballots.
“I’m amazed at how much participation has grown in Israel,” says Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonpartisan group that promotes absentee balloting. “They really seem to care about this election.”
Of the estimated 250,000 American citizens in Israel, about 120,000 are eligible to vote, according to Dzieduszycka-Suinat and activists from both parties. Some 30,000 did so in the 2004 presidential election; only the U.K., Canada and Germany produced more absentee ballots, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said.
Republicans Abroad in Israel has been passing out bumper stickers that carry McCain’s name rendered in Hebrew. Democrats Abroad set up booths on Israeli campuses to promote Obama, 47, to year-abroad students.
Surrogates for the two senators faced off in a mock debate last month at the Jerusalem landmark that houses Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Mark Zell, a lawyer and co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel playing McCain, attacked Obama’s lack of experience, winning applause and hoots from a crowd packed with American retirees.
Expatriate ballots are counted by voters’ home states, so ballots from former residents of Florida are especially important. Obama is ahead there by 49 percent to 44 percent, according to a survey by Research 2000 of 600 likely voters taken Oct. 6-8. About 5 percent of Florida’s electorate is Jewish, according to CNN exit polls.
In 2000, when Florida’s contested outcome ended up deciding the presidential race, George W. Bush beat Vice President Al Gore there by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.
Both candidates visited Israel this year and met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They also saw the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and Sderot, a town bordering the Gaza Strip that was attacked by Palestinian rockets before a June cease-fire. Obama met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah July 23. McCain phoned Abbas from Jerusalem on March 19.
Most dual citizens in Israel probably are registered as Democrats, both parties’ activists there say. In the 2004 presidential election, 74 percent of Jews in the U.S. voted for Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, according to exit polls.
Kory Bardash, co-chairman of the Republicans Abroad in Israel, said many Democrats will support McCain, 72, because of the Arizona senator’s record of cutting taxes and support for Israel. Expatriates generally focus on taxes and foreign policy, paying less attention to abortion, gay rights and other domestic social issues, he said.
Bardash, 43, said Americans in Israel may be disinclined to vote for Obama because the Illinois senator has a Muslim middle name, Hussein. Controversial comments by Obama’s former pastor — the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who said “God damn America” in a sermon — also have had an impact, he said.
Vouching for Obama
Israelis for Obama, a Democratic group, has videos on YouTube in which prominent Israelis — including Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a retired general; Naomi Chazan, an ex-member of parliament; and Efraim Halevy, one-time director of the Mossad spy agency — vouch for his pro-Israel credentials.
Hillel Schenker, 66, who was born in Brooklyn and has lived in Israel for 40 years, is confident Obama will get more expat votes.
“The Americans I came with were essentially liberal Democrats, and that hasn’t changed,” said Schenker, vice-chairman of Israel’s Democrats Abroad chapter. “Obama’s going to do very well in Israel.”
In a June 4 address to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama pledged “an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.” Two days earlier, McCain told the same organization: “In a world full of dangers, Israel and the United States must always stand together.”
105 Years Old
Bardash, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. stock analyst, focuses on areas where there are lots of Americans, including the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana and West Bank settlements Efrat and Maale Adumim. At a retirement home in Jerusalem, he helped register a 105-year-old Democrat, Miriam Pollack, who is from Delray Beach, Florida.
Obama is “too much of a risk,” Bardash said she told him.
Democrats are signing up students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and promoting absentee ballots at house parties. A get- out-the-vote event closer to the election is planned at Mike’s Place, a bar overlooking Tel Aviv’s beach next to the U.S. Embassy, said Joanne Yaron, chairwoman of Israel’s Democrats Abroad. The bar was the scene of a Palestinian suicide bombing in 2003.
Both parties also are urging recruits to call or visit relatives and friends back home. Democrats have adopted the U.S. “Great Schlep” effort featuring comedian Sarah Silverman, which encourages Jews to visit their Florida grandparents to urge them to vote for Obama.
Republicans have countered with a video of Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, who supports McCain. Bardash says he and other expat Republicans may go to Florida themselves to counter the Schlep and are asking Americans in Israel to at least phone relatives there.
“When they tell Uncle Morris in Miami that McCain’s good for Israel and Obama’s not, that carries a big impact,” Bardash says.
—With reporting by Jerry Hart in Miami. Editors: Anne Swardson, Mark Tannenbaum