Two weeks ago, a 77-year-old American woman living in Haifa called me and asked how she could register to vote in the American elections. “I have never voted for a Republican before,” she told me. “I’ve even worked in Democratic presidential campaigns. But this time I am voting for President Bush.”
When I asked her why, she summed it all up in three words: “Bush has backbone.”
It is a sentiment I have heard often in discussing the upcoming elections with hundreds of Americans living in Israel. If what I have heard is indicative of the opinions of the 120,000 eligible voters here, President George W. Bush will win their support by a wide margin.
That would mark a sea change from four years ago. Because of Jews’ long-standing affinity for the Democrats and the ill-will Bush’s father justly earned for his frosty attitude toward Israel, Bush faired poorly among American voters in Israel in 2000.
But while I have encountered few people here who voted for Bush in 2000, I have met few who do not plan to vote for him in 2004.
What accounts for this difference? The No. 1 reason, as the Haifa woman so succinctly put it, appears to be Bush’s resolve in fighting the war on terror. While voters living in the United States are focused on a range of issues, their countrymen living in Israel are focused almost exclusively on the issue of terrorism.
Israelis are on the front lines in the war on terror, and the Americans who live among them are no exception. Here, the war on terror is not some distant fight experienced through a living room television. It is right on our doorstep. It accompanies us as we walk our children to school, board a bus, eat in a pizza shop or sit in a cafe.
Americans living in Israel have learned the hard way that the only way to defeat terror is to fight it. We have seen how the Israeli government’s decision two years ago to initiate Operation Defensive Shield and thereby dramatically increase its military response to terror has drastically reduced the number of casualties from terror attacks.
That is why President Bush’s post-9/11 decision to wage an all out offensive against global terror is one that we know has made America and the entire free world safer. Perhaps Americans living on the front lines are more appreciative than others of the security afforded by the president’s resolve.
In contrast, there is widespread concern here that Sen. John Kerry will not forcefully confront terrorism. He has given ample reason for doubt, from a Senate record replete with votes against military spending to foreign policies that seem incoherent to promises that he would wage a more “sensitive” war on terror.
While concerns about Kerry’s resolve might be expected from Republicans, I am surprised by how many Democrats have the same doubts. Time after time, I have heard Democrats lament how Kerry is not cut from the same cloth as the “Democrats of old” who helped lead the struggle against fascism and communism.
The position of the two candidates on specific matters related to Israel also plays an important role in determining the vote of Americans who live here. Bush’s refusal to pressure Israel into making concessions to terror when many short-sighted democratic leaders around the world were calling for just that, has earned him a deserved reputation as the strongest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.
Moreover, his decision in 2001 not to send U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N.-sponsored conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, as a protest against the anti-Semitic circus that took place there has also won him the support of many who appreciate the president’s moral clarity.
In contrast, Kerry is seen as constantly changing his positions on even the most important issues. An example was his recent flip-flop on the defensive barrier Israel is erecting to protect its civilians from suicide bombers. At first, Kerry opposed the fence that has proved so effective at saving lives, calling it a “barrier to peace.” Later, when he realized that the 1,000 Israeli victims of terrorism made his position politically untenable, he reversed course.
Not surprisingly, Americans in Israel do not have a great deal of confidence that as president, Kerry would support Israel in the face of European, Arab and U.N. pressure. Having made winning the support of these parties a central theme in his campaign, many here are concerned that Israel will pay the price for Kerry’s hopes of being “respected abroad.”
For example, how would Kerry respond to the recent French foreign minister’s call that Yasser Arafat, an unrepentant terrorist who President Bush has refused to meet, be included in peace negotiations?
When Kerry calls for more U.N. involvement in the war on terror, Americans in Israel see it as a strategy of appeasement. Will an institution that allows Libya to chair a human rights commission and Syria to sit on the Security Council help the United States defend democracy and confront terror?
Likewise, when Americans in Israel hear Kerry claim that European leaders would rather have him as president, they are no less concerned. After all, this is the same Europe that has counseled appeasement time and again and which has done so little to combat a rising tide of global anti-Semitism. Will a President Kerry rely on the resolve and supposed moral clarity of European leaders to confront an evil that threatens our entire world?
According to the polls, Bush and Kerry are still running neck and neck. But judging from what I have seen and heard over the last few months, Bush will win the votes of American in Israel by a landslide. I suppose backbone counts for a little more when you are on the front lines.
Kory Bardash is the chairman of the Israeli branch of Republicans Abroad (www.RAIsrael.org).
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.