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America Decides 2004 Israelis Supported Bush, but Some Rue the Implications of His Victory

At Itzik Sabbag’s sleek hair salon with its silver walls and frosted windows, customers were split down the middle about President Bush’s re-election and what it would mean for Israel. “Divided — just like in the United States,” Sabbag joked.

But like many Israelis, Sabbag, 34, is a Bush supporter all the way.

“Bush, he’s an awesome guy,” Sabbag said. “He will be good for the war on terror. He knows what terrorism is, he fights it and he speaks the right language to the Arab world.”

Israelis have followed the U.S. election closely, watching special television coverage and reading headlines about the tight race as they wondered if their most important asset — friendship with America — would change depending on the winner.

Unlike most of the international community, Israelis tended to prefer Bush over Kerry, championing his tough talk against terrorism, his ousting of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the support he has given to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies.

In a poll published last month in Ha’aretz, 50 percent of those surveyed wanted to see Bush win, while only 24 percent wanted a Kerry victory.

Sabbag, a longtime Likud Party voter in Israeli politics, hopes Bush will push harder for Israeli-Palestinian peace now that he won’t have to worry about re-election — and especially if Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who is ailing, is no longer a factor.

Two stores down, Yariv Siani, 36, sat outside his nail salon shaking his head in disagreement. A chance for a real breakthrough toward Middle East peace was lost when Americans re-elected Bush, he said.

“I heard the news this morning and I was in shock. It was our one chance for change,” he said of a Kerry victory. “I only foresee bad things happening now that Bush has come to power again. When the world is angry at America, Israel is always blamed.”

Ben-Dror Yemini, the Op-Ed editor of the daily Ma’ariv, said he was concerned by the Bush victory. He said Bush’s failure to aggressively pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace — a common, though not universal, perception among analysts — could lead to an even more volatile situation.

“The kind of ally he is with Sharon is a bit frightening. If he gives Sharon full support for everything, I don’t really think it serves Israel’s interests,” Yemini told JTA.

The Bush administration has criticized many of Sharon’s military moves and has blasted Israeli settlement construction. But the administration has backed Sharon’s refusal to deal with Arafat and Israel’s desire to retain some West Bank settlement blocs, and has blunted criticism of Israel in the United Nations.

Others foresaw fortune for Israel in Bush’s re-election.

“Bush is a good president. He did good work in Iraq as far as we are concerned: Now there will not be Scuds fired on us. He may have made things harder for America, but for us he has made things easier,” said Tsvika Pearl, 48, a real estate agent and part-time actor who was walking his golden retriever down a Tel Aviv street.

“America is our back,” he said, smiling. “All American presidents have been good for us — Democrats or Republicans, it doesn’t matter much.”

Computer programmer Yoel Amar, 31, agreed.

“America has and always will be pro-Israel because its people are pro-Israel,” he said.

Others felt crushed by Bush’s re-election.

Dawn had barely broken when a group of Democratic Israeli-Americans huddled around a television set in a Tel Aviv living room as election results began trickling in.

Hadass Tesher, the event’s host, a 34-year-old media consultant who used to work for Democratic clients in Washington, decorated her apartment with Kerry balloons, Kerry posters and miniature American flags

She also put up posters listing battleground states and key Senate races.

But there was little to celebrate.

“I am concerned about where Israel and the peace process will be on the Bush administration’s order of priorities in a second term. It’s difficult to feel optimistic at this point,” Tesher said.

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, Kobi Sheteet said he was paying little attention to the U.S. elections, focusing instead on just making ends meet in Israel.

“It won’t matter to me; whoever is president won’t be making sure I have a job or not. Here we have to worry about ourselves,” said Sheteet, sorting tomatoes at the produce shop where he works as a clerk.

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