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America Decides 2004 Voter Registration Surges Among Americans in Israel

For Republicans and Democrats vying for Jewish votes, it’s become a well-worn cliche: a handful of votes in Florida could swing this year’s presidential election. What’s not so well known is that those Florida votes might not even be in Florida.

Six thousand ex-Floridians living in Israel and the territories are eligible to vote in U.S. elections in November — more than 10 times the number that decided the 2000 election for George W. Bush.

“One selling point I have for people is that I remind them that 537 votes made the difference in Florida,” said Mark Zober, who as the Israel head of Democrats Abroad has been canvassing the country to register votes.

“It’s sort of a shotgun approach; you go to an event and hope there are Florida people,” said Zober, in his mid-50s, who made aliyah in 1972 from Whittier, Calif.

And not just Florida people. Zober’s Republican counterpart, Kory Bardash, said his organization was focusing on all swing state expatriates.

“We have made heavy efforts in trying to identify Americans from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan,” said Bardash, 39, who made aliyah from New York City nine years ago.

Expatriates vote according to their last U.S. address.

Such calculations are at the center of what officials from both parties are saying is the most intensive effort ever to get out the eligible American voters in Israel and the Palestinian-populated territories.

Howie Kahn, the nonpartisan program director for the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, organized a registration evening in early September and said it was the largest turnout ever.

“This is amazing,” he said, watching Israelis from Jerusalem and surrounding suburbs and settlements crowd into AACI headquarters in Jerusalem’s genteel Talbieh neighborhood.

“The feeling is that every vote counts.”

Not just in Israel. Both parties say they are recording unprecedented interest from Americans overseas, to the extent that a flood of requests has overwhelmed electoral officials in some states, they say.

Americans who have voted abroad in previous elections are automatically processed, but each request from a first-time overseas voter means state officials have to run thorough checks on the application. This year’s overwhelming first-time voter interest means that many states are not meeting deadlines for mailing out the ballots. That means that voters abroad might not meet state voting deadlines, which vary between Nov. 2 and 10.

“I’m really worried about it,” said Joan Hills of Republicans Abroad. Her organization is encouraging members to use an alternative method, faxing a request to the Pentagon for a write-in ballot. The service is open to all Americans, not just the military, and the deadline is Oct. 3.

Americans in Israel account for about 150,000 of the estimated 4 to 7 million Americans abroad. They are said to be the fifth largest expatriate community in the world — after Canada, Britain, Germany and Mexico; their counterparts in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem number about 40,000.

But both populations are believed — like their brethren living in the United States — to vote in higher percentages than other Americans.

Bardash, the Republican, said he alone had registered 9,000 voters by mid-September, and anticipated overall turnout to be double that of 2000, when 14,000 Americans voted in Israel.

Once registration is completed — the deadline for most states is Oct. 2 — voters abroad await their absentee ballots, which then must be sent back to the States.

One reason for his registration drive’s success, he suggested, was that the unprecedented closeness between the Bush and Sharon administrations has brought more Americans in Israel around to the Republican point of view.

“What you hear on the street is a significant appreciation for Bush administration policies and a large amount of Democrats who are registered Democrats are going to be voting for President Bush in this election,” he said.

“I feel there is an enthusiasm to vote overall, and a particular enthusiasm to vote for the president.”

In the 2000 election, Bush got 35 percent of the American Jewish vote in Israel, considerably higher than the 19 percent he scored among American Jews in general.

But polls surveying the preferences of the overall Israeli population have shown a marked shift in support in favor of Bush — depending on the poll, numbers show 48-49 percent support Bush, while 18-29 percent support Kerry. If that redounds onto American Jews in Israel, Bardash could be right.

Adelaide Kahn, an octogenarian in Jerusalem who has children living on a West Bank settlement, said she feels now she made a mistake voting for Al Gore in 2000.

“I want this man Bush to make it,” said Kahn, who moved from Connecticut to Israel in 1976.

The reverse flip will likely take place among Palestinians here, most of whom voted for Bush in 2000, believing he would slow what they perceived as President Clinton’s pro-Israel peace drive.

Palestinian-Americans are likely to follow U.S.-based friends and relatives who have turned away from Bush because of his post-Sept. 11, 2001, policies on security, Iraq and Israel.

Polls show most Arab Americans voting for Kerry this time around.

Two subsectors among American immigrants in Israel are especially fertile for Republican culling: settlers and the Orthodox, who appreciate Bush’s hawkish tilt and his conservative values.

Mordechai Adler, a fervently Orthodox computer specialist in Petach Tikva, said his community was ideal for recruitment.

He said that he decided to register Americans in his community when he realized how easy it was to do and how concentrated his community is.

Knowing how involved his Haredi community is in the Israeli elections, he thought they would be interested in participating in the American elections.

Adler, who emigrated from Chicago 15 years ago, said he was not pushing a partisan agenda — he is happy to register both Democrats and Republicans — but the reactions he gets reflect Republican talking points.

“The war on terrorism, the security issue, Israel is at the forefront on the war on terrorism; that is going to be the major issue, that is what I’m hearing from everyone,” said Adler, who added that he was so busy registering voters last week that he barely had time to prepare for Yom Kippur.

Democrats in Israel say concerns about terrorism and security could work for them as well.

President Bush’s policies endanger Israel, they say, because they are adventurist and isolationist.

“People are saying, ‘We have to get Bush out of there’ ” said Zober of the Democrats in Israel group. “The chaos in the world is not helping us here in Israel.”

The philosophical question of whether Americans in Israel should even exercise the right to vote has become an issue. A recent essay in the Jerusalem Post by noted author Hillel Halkin, arguing that voting should be confined to one’s country of residence, drew pages of heated response.

Richard Hirschhorn, 72, a retired computer specialist in Jerusalem, once believed he had left U.S. voting behind. But 35 years after he abandoned a Philadelphia address, he is voting again in a presidential election, drawn by his home state’s battleground status.

Hirschhorn said he was appalled by Bush’s policies.

“He may love Israel, but it’s not enough. The welfare of the United States is important for Israel,” he said, consulting with his wife about long-forgotten address details as he filled in voter registration forms at the AACI event in Jerusalem.

Others said voting was a moral obligation wherever they live, or however influential their vote was.

“It’s important for everybody to vote, whether or not it makes a difference,” said Jaime Walman, 27, from Boston, who is living in Jerusalem with her fiancee, a rabbinical student.

Walman, registering at the AACI center, knew her vote for Kerry would not make a difference in the candidate’s own home state.

Steve Shnider, a math professor who emigrated from Maryland in 1982 and now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba, said he skipped the 2000 vote — but this election was too important to miss.

That didn’t mean he had made a choice by mid-September, when he spent a balmy evening attending a Democrats Abroad registration drive at Mike’s Place, an American-friendly bar on Tel Aviv’s beach-side.

“I’m totally confused,” he said, a TV blaring an NFL football game in the background.

“I think Bush is good for Israel, his policy is the right policy, but to have someone so incompetent in power?”

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