JERUSALEM (JTA) – On behalf of Donald Trump, Republicans last week launched a get-out-the-vote campaign geared to Americans living in Israel. The initiative, which began Aug. 1, has unprecedented funding and local strategic support.
The effort by Republicans Overseas Israel, the main group supporting the party here, reflects it leaders’ conviction that American Israelis overwhelmingly back the GOP presidential nominee — and that their votes could even tip the election in his favor.
The group will target Americans here who hail from pivotal “swing states,” such as Florida and Pennsylvania. There are approximately 30,000 eligible voters in Israel from states that are likely to be close on Election Day, according to the Republicans, who say those votes could be instrumental in selecting the 45th president of the United States.
“This election promises to be close, and the many conservative Americans from swing states who are living in Israel could make the difference,” Marc Zell, the co-chairman of the group and vice president of the parent Republican Overseas, told JTA. “[President George W.] Bush won the 2000 election based on 537 votes in a few southern Florida districts, if I’m not mistaken.”
Republicans Overseas Israel leaders see the country as a rare bastion of American-Jewish political conservatism. They estimate there are 300,000 to 400,000 eligible voters living in Israel, with the largest populations in Jerusalem, Ranaana, Modiin, Bet Shemesh and the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank.
Some 30 percent of Americans in Israel are religious Zionist, 20 to 25 percent are haredi Orthodox and 15 percent are “traditional” religious, by their count.
The Republicans estimated 85 percent of Americans in Israel will vote for Trump. According to an exit poll conducted by another get-out-the-vote group, iVote Israel, that is the percentage that voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.
By contrast, in the United States, 69 percent of Jews voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, compared to 30 percent for Romney.
Merrill Oates, the Democrats Abroad vice chair for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, dismissed the Republicans Overseas Israel and iVote Israel estimates as “wildly exaggerated.” He questioned iVote Israel’s avowed nonpartisanship, saying he knows reports that it has ties to the Republican Party to be true.
Oates said his experience suggests most American Israelis favor the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and that the 2012 numbers do not apply to this election, since the candidates are so different.
“People are very much concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and his reputation,” he told JTA. “They may have some disagreements policy-wise with Secretary Clinton, but they feel she is a reliable person who they can have confidence that they will steer the ship of state with a steady hand.”
Trump’s disparaging remarks about Muslims, Mexicans and the family of a Muslim-American soldier killed in combat — among other controversial statements he’s made on the campaign trail — have been criticized by many American Jewish groups, including Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. In December, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Trump for saying he would bar all Muslims from entering the United States.
Oates said Democrats Abroad, which facilitates American voting around the world, did not have alternative statistics about Americans voting in Israel, citing the lack of organization in the country at the moment and their historic focus on grassroots organizing over polling.
But a March poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank found that most Israelis prefer Clinton to Trump. When asked which of the two candidates would be “be better from the standpoint of Israeli interests,” 38 percent said Clinton and 28 percent said Trump. Only 49 percent of Israelis approved of President Barack Obama in 2011, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Eitan Charnoff, iVote Israel’s national director, said the group is indeed nonpartisan, and has staff members and volunteers from both parties, as well as some who he does not how they affiliate.
“That’s just not what we’re about. Our goal is to get as many Americans to vote from Israel, regardless of who they are voting for, to continue to demonstrate to American politicians that they have a serious constituency that they need to pay attention to in Israel. We want to ensure that just as in 2008 and 2012, more American votes from Israel than from any other country outside the U.S. — exponentially more — despite their being a large population in other countries, such as Canada,” he told JTA.
Charnoff said iVote Israel estimates there are 200,000 eligible American voters in Israel, up from about 160,000 in 2008.
Whatever the numbers, Republicans Overseas Israel leaders are intent on turning out more voters than ever before. This is the first year the group has hired paid strategists since its founding in 1991. The head of the team is Tzika Brot, a former political journalist for centrist Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, who is now a political and business strategist.
Also on board are Dana Mizrahi, a former spokeswoman for Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Labor’s Ehud Barak; Yerah Tuker, a strategist who works with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and haredi Orthodox Knesset Member Moshe Gafni and Roni Arzi, who runs Bennett’s Facebook page and works with other political parties and groups. Brot said he is working on recruiting two more big-name hires in the coming days.
“In a few days, I believe we will have a team of 4-6 people,” Brot told JTA. “It’s a great team that has worked with the right and the left in Israel, the secular parties and the haredi parties. So we have all of the sectors [of society] covered.”
The Republicans would not discuss fundraising numbers, but said the budget was unprecedented and had been raised from within the organization in Israel. The money will go toward messaging by telephone, email and social media, as well as public voter outreach and campaign-related events.
Republicans Overseas Israel leaders plan to court early, and often, voters who hail from several swing states that are expected to be hotly contested on Nov. 8. They said those states — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — are all well represented in Israel, to the tune of some 30,000 eligible voters, including 10,000 to 12,000 from Florida alone.
Another overlapping target demographic for the Republicans is young Americans who were raised in Israel. Though they are U.S. citizens, the strategists said, they tend to be detached from American politics and not inclined to vote.
“We’re going to stress that this is like reserve duty in the army,” Brot said. “If they care about their country, they need to vote.”
Israel is an increasingly right-wing country, with young Israelis holding more nationalistic views than their parents, but many here still identify as centrists or leftists. Statistics specific to Americans in Israel are hard to come by; the Republicans said they draw on various sources, including official Israel reports, academic research and Republican Overseas Israel’s experience.
Meanwhile, Democrats Abroad Israel, the official party body here since 1976, is without official local leadership. Oates, who is based in Hungary, said the group “fell behind” in organizing. He is temporarily filling in, but expects to be replaced “before too long.” Democrats Abroad Israel held its first organizing meeting of the election season Wednesday in Jerusalem. Oates said some 2,000 people have volunteered to help with get-out-the-vote efforts similar to those planned by Republicans Overseas Israel.
Whatever their views on Trump, Zell has no doubt that American Israelis, and Israelis in general, will ultimately trust only the Republican Party to protect their national interests. Zell, a U.S.-born attorney who lives in the West Bank settlement Tekoa, was a late convert to the Trump cause, and he said most of the Republican Overseas Israel board members were, too. But he said that after helping to draft the Republican party platform — which removed mention of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it’s now “the most pro-Israel ever.”
Since the Republican National Convention, Zell has warmed to Trump. “I was a major critic of his during the primary process,” Zell said. “But I was very impressed by what people at convention said about working with him behind the scenes.”
Unlike in 2012, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the presumptive nominee by March and Obama was running for reelection, Republicans and Democrats in Israel this year had to wait until after the July national conventions to get to work, leaving them with less than 100 days to go until the election. An upside for Republican Overseas Israel is it won’t have to wait long to find out how sound its new strategy is.