Presidential election could come down to Israel

new york | When decision time comes this fall, the real swing votes in the 2004 presidential election may not come from Pennsylvania, Ohio or even the notorious Florida. The ultimate Bush-Kerry battleground may turn out to be somewhere more far-flung and unexpected — like Israel.

And both political camps say they are getting ready for the fight, courting American voters who are living overseas and taking no chances that the expatriate vote will undermine them at the finish line.

Contrary to widespread belief, it was more likely that American voters in Israel, not Florida, put George W. Bush in the White House four years ago — a phenomenon that has Kerry’s supporters in Israel vowing to do whatever it takes to make certain that doesn’t happen again in November.

Bush, too, has advocates chasing the overseas vote on his behalf, according to Ryan King, deputy director of Republicans Abroad, which has chapters in 50 countries. Among those crossing the oceans for Bush this fall are former Vice President Dan Quayle and George P. Bush, son of the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In 2000, according to King, Israel was one of the keys to Bush’s success. No other foreign country’s U.S. citizens contributed more to Bush’s narrow Florida victory, he said.

Mark Zober, chairman of Democrats Abroad in Israel, said he has no firm figures but estimates that roughly 100,000 Americans in Israel are eligible to vote in the upcoming U.S. election and that roughly 14,000 were registered in 2000.

No statistics exist to predict definitively whether Americans in Israel will play such an important role this November. But Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Abroad’s Israel chapter, is taking no chances.

Zell said his group has about 150 volunteers who aggressively started registering potential Bush voters a few months ago. As the election nears, he said, they will be holding “parlor sessions’ at their homes to discuss Bush’s support for Israel and will probably take out pro-Bush ads in Israel’s English-language newspapers.

AP writers Laurie Copans in Jerusalem and Beth Gardiner in London contributed to this report.