image Photo: Reuters, Flash90

US elections reach Israeli streets

Jewish settler leaders and their supporters prayed for the re-election of U.S. President Donald Trump during a ceremony at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The site is revered as the tomb of many biblical forebearers.

“We have come to bless President Trump, both for the past, to thank him, but also for the future, that he succeeds in the coming election,” said Spokesman for the Hebron settlers, Yishai Fleisher.

One of those interred there, according to tradition, is Abraham, who is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Hoping to encourage coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the Trump administration has named the Israeli-Arab rapprochement that it has been brokering the “Abraham Accords.”

The Republican leader also reversed decades of American policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocation the U.S. there. His administration also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, supported Israel’s presence in the West Bank on land where the Palestinians want to establish a state – and only this week, authorized recognition of Israel as the country of birth for Jerusalem-born Americans.

Rabbi Hillel Horovitch officiated Monday’s ceremony, citing President Trump’s “commitment to the preservation and strengthening of the people of Israel, the State of Israel and the land of Israel” and praying, “With the will of God before you, may he be elected four more years of presidency.”

The Chairman of the Republican Party in Israel L. Marc Zell commented, “It’s a special day and to be here at this particular location in the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the first capital of King David of Israel.”

Another rally on Trump’s behalf took place in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. Supporters drove the streets in vehicles decorated with photos of the U.S. President alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One woman waving a U.S. flag out the window called, “I love you Trump, Israel” before driving away, while others carried Israeli flags and wore face masks reading “Trump 2020.”

American-Israeli voters interviewed by Reuters identified the coronavirus crisis, economic policy and candidates’ stands on Israel as guiding their decisions.

39-year-old resident David Wiener told Reuters that Trump was the right choice because he approached thorny Middle East conflicts “from a business perspective.” The registered Republican aerospace engineer added that “Gulf countries see Israel as an opportunity to expand their industries … Trump took advantage of that with the UAE.”

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), Israel is home to the third largest community of eligible voters outside the U.S., surpassed only by Canada and the United Kingdom, although they traditionally show a low voter turnout. U.S. law permits eligible voters to cast absentee ballots by post, fax, messenger service or online, but many find the process confusing. Even though 188,499 Israelis with American citizenship were eligible to vote in 2018, just 1.8% cast ballots. 6.9% participated in 2016 elections.

Dual Israeli-U.S. voters, who are is estimated to number between 100,000 and 300,000  could nevertheless be pivotal in the outcome of today’s elections, if they choose to vote.

Trump, 74, assumed the presidency after his surprise victory over Clinton in November 2016. Even though he lost the nationwide popular vote by about 3 million ballots, he succeeded in major battleground states to amass a majority at the Electoral College. The candidate who reaches 270 electoral votes out of the 538 available is declared president. The holding of higher numbers of electoral votes gives some states particular significance.

Florida (29 electoral college votes), Pennsylvania (20 electoral college votes) and Ohio (18 electoral college votes) are considered swing states because they do not consistently vote for one party or another. In these states, only a few hundred votes can sway the results of the entire election.

Many American-Israelis are registered in swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. There are no reliable statistics on these citizens’ political leanings, but Mr. Zell estimates there were 25,000-30,000 eligible Florida voters in the country. “That could be the deciding factor in that state’s contest,” he said, pointing to George W. Bush’s narrow 537-vote Florida victory in 2000, which handed him the election.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s supporters have sent election postcards to Israeli Democrats and independent voters from swing states – where they say around half of American-Israeli Democrats are registered.

Democrats Abroad Israel Head Heather Stone accused Trump of having “used Israel as a partisan football to serve his own constituencies, like Christian Evangelicals.” She said that former Vice President Biden was “a long-time friend of Israel who will help keep alive” the vision of a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One New York voter, Hezi Kugler, said he was voting for Biden to bring “a return to decency and a restoration of integrity” at the highest level of government. The 62-year-old energy industry professional in Tel Aviv said, “Trump has done some things that are good for Israeli interests, but his lack of global leadership has created an enormous vacuum in the region that is generally bad for Israel.”

“When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary, I danced in my kitchen because I thought things would finally improve for women,” 60-year-old Elana Sztokman from Modi’in told Ynet. Sztokman, who moved to Israel 27 years ago, described Biden as “a good man and leader and has a vision to unite the country.” She also expressed fear that if Trump loses “he will refuse to leave office.”

Many Palestinians are also dual citizens who are eligible to vote in today’s elections. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has encouraged both sides to cast ballots, and hosted live events on Facebook with Arabic subtitles geared at Arab residents in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Democrats Abroad group has also been working with Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem and in the Palestinian diaspora to get out the vote.

One East Jerusalem activist, Kefah Abukhdeir, said Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face multiple barriers to sending votes abroad. “We haven’t had much luck turning out voters here,” she said, citing unreliable postal services that she described as “practically non-existent.”

About 300 Palestinian Americans are estimated to live in Gaza. Resident Kamal Abusharia said he hoped to vote for the first time since the early 1990s, in part due to anger towards Trump. He said that he nevertheless holds out little hope that Biden would reverse all of Trump’s pro-Israeli moves were he to win, such as returning the U.S. Embassy to Tel Aviv.