Israelis catch U.S. election fever

A U.S. citizen living in Israel casts his absentee vote in Tel Aviv. (Dina Kraft )

A U.S. citizen living in Israel casts his absentee vote in Tel Aviv. (Dina Kraft )

TEL AVIV (JTA) – Just beyond the beer taps at a Tel Aviv bar with an American flag hanging out front, a makeshift polling station draws dozens of Americans in Israel casting their vote for the U.S. election, 6,000 miles away.

“This is more fun than voting in the Bronx,” said one voter, sealing his ballot in an envelope Sunday night at the Dancing Camel, the Tel Aviv bar where the Vote From Israel organization set up its absentee voting operation in the city.

Israelis – including the American citizens among them, as many as half of whom hail from swing states – have been closely following the election campaign across the ocean.

Hourly radio news bulletins routinely report the latest U.S. polls, Israeli media have dispatched reporters to cover the campaign trail and have been rebroadcasting Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations on “Saturday Night Live.” Some Israelis have even gotten involved on the grassroots level. One group produced a YouTube video called Israelis for Obama that has been seen some by some 400,000 viewers.

All the while, Israelis have been following the disproportionate mention of their small country in the campaign with a mix of amusement and validation (in the vice presidential debate alone, Israel got 17 references).

The visits to Israel this summer by both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain lent further credence to the Israeli joke that Israel is America’s 51st state. During their visits, both candidates made the perfunctory pledges of support for Israel. The gestures may have been meant for Jewish voters back home, but they also put at ease Israelis not too familiar with either candidate.

Israelis “feel very much involved in this election and have deep opinions about it,” said Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

The author of a new book on the history of the U.S. presidency titled “The Presidents,” Diskin said he was surprised by the high level of demand in Israel for his new book, which includes chapters on Obama and McCain and features the two on its cover.

With the U.S. election just days away, poll results released this week by the Rabin Center for Israel Studies found that 46.4 percent of Israelis would vote for McCain and 34 percent for Obama, with 18.6 undecided. Nearly half of the 500 Israelis surveyed, or 48.6 percent, said McCain would be better for Israel; 31.5 percent said Obama would be better.

The results are very different from U.S. polls showing Obama in the lead, including among American Jews. They reflect the wariness some Israelis, including Americans living here, have about Obama’s untested relationship with Israel. With the growing threat of a nuclear Iran high on Israelis’ minds, some Israelis see McCain as the safer choice, due to his foreign policy record and experience and more hawkish line on national security.

Others support Obama’s message of change and are eager to see a U.S. president with a less unilateral approach to foreign affairs than President Bush and whose actions will boost America’s standing in the world, which is seen to benefit Israel. They also support the Democratic candidate’s positions on abortion rights, health care policy and the economy.

Among registered Democrats in Israel, Obama lost in the primaries to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). who beat Obama 54 to 45 percent. Clinton polled better in Israel than both Obama and McCain; her popularity here is thought to be due to her familiarity to Israelis and to the popularity of her husband in Israel.

With its large community of expatriate Americans – Israel is thought to have the fifth-largest U.S. expatriate community in the world, after Canada, Britain, Germany and Mexico – Israel is seeing its share of political activity around the U.S. election.

One New Jersey native now living in Israel, Noah Hertz-Bunzl, 22, founded a group called Americans in Israel for Obama, which coordinated efforts with the Obama campaign for two voter registration events. The group also has been calling Jews in swing states to convince them to vote Obama.

“The basic point we make is not to be scared off by Obama and to counter the misconception that Israelis are opposed to him,” Hertz-Bunzl said.

Kory Bardash, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, said that he expects most American voters in Israel to side with McCain, noting that in 2004 approximately 70 percent of Israel’s Americans voted for Bush.

“People who vote in Israel are typically either religious or people who care about Israel,” Bardash said. “It’s foreign policy and the economy that matter, and traditional liberal issues do not play so much of a role here.”

McCain’s support among Orthodox Jews is stronger than among liberal ones.

Elliott Nahmias, 37, originally from California, said he’s voting McCain in large part because of foreign policy considerations.

Jennifer Shapiro, 27, who grew up in New Jersey, said she’s become obsessed with the elections, even from the distance of Israel.

“I don’t do anything but read and watch news about the election,” she said.

Shapiro said she is supporting Obama because she favors his international outlook and his positions on domestic issues, including health care and the economy.

When it comes to Israel, she says the Jewish state will know how to take care of itself no matter who is president: “It will do what it needs to do to protect itself,” she said.

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