In presidential election, every ballot counts &mdash even from Israel

jerusalem | For Republicans and Democrats vying for Jewish votes, it’s become a well-worn cliché: a handful of votes in Florida could swing this year’s presidential election.

What’s not so well known is that those Florida votes might not even be in Florida.

Six thousand ex-Floridians living in Israel and the territories are registered to vote in U.S. elections in November. That’s more than 10 times the number that decided the 2000 election for George W. Bush.

“One selling point I have for people is that I remind them that 537 votes made the difference in Florida,” said Mark Zober, who as the Israel head of Democrats Abroad has been canvassing the country to register votes.

“It’s sort of a shotgun approach; you go to an event and hope there are Florida people,” said Zober, in his mid-50s, who made aliyah in 1972 from Whittier, Calif.

And not just Florida people. Zober’s Republican counterpart, Kory Bardash, said his organization was focusing on all swing-state expatriates.

“We have made heavy efforts in trying to identify Americans from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan,” said Bardash, 39, who made aliyah from New York City nine years ago.

Expatriates vote according to their last U.S. address.

Such calculations are at the center of what officials from both parties are saying is the most intensive effort ever to get out the American and Palestinian voters in Israel and the territories.

Howie Kahn, the nonpartisan program director for the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, organized a registration evening in early September and said it was the largest turnout ever.

“This is amazing,” he said, watching Israelis from Jerusalem and surrounding suburbs and settlements crowd into AACI headquarters in Jerusalem’s genteel Talbieh neighborhood. “The feeling is that every vote counts.”

Americans in Israel account for about 150,000 of 7 million Americans abroad. They are said to be the fourth-largest expatriate community in the world — after Canada, Britain and Mexico; their counterparts in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem number about 40,000.

But both populations are believed — like their brethren living in the United States — to vote in higher percentages than other Americans.

Bardash, the Republican, said he alone had registered 9,000 voters by mid-September, and anticipated overall turnout to be double that of 2000, when 14,000 Americans voted in Israel.

Once registration is completed — the deadline for most states is Friday, Oct. 2 — voters abroad await their absentee ballots, which then must be sent back to the States.

One reason for his registration drive’s success, Bardash suggested, was that the closeness between the Bush and Sharon administrations has brought more Americans in Israel around to the Republican point of view.

“What you hear on the street is a significant appreciation for Bush administration policies and a large amount of Democrats who are registered Democrats are going to be voting for President Bush in this election,” he said.

“I feel there is an enthusiasm to vote overall, and a particular enthusiasm to vote for the president.”

In the 2000 election, Bush got 35 percent of the American Jewish vote in Israel, considerably higher than the 19 percent he scored among American Jews in general. But polls surveying the preferences of the overall Israeli population have shown a marked shift in support in favor of Bush: Depending on the poll, numbers show 48-49 percent support Bush, while 18-29 percent support Sen. John Kerry. If that redounds onto American Jews in Israel, Bardash could be right.

Adelaide Kahn, an octogenarian in Jerusalem who has children living on a West Bank settlement, said she feels now she made a mistake voting for Al Gore in 2000.

“I want this man Bush to make it,” said Kahn, who moved from Connecticut to Israel in 1976.

The reverse flip will likely take place among Palestinians here, most of whom voted for Bush in 2000, believing he would slow what they perceived as President Clinton’s pro-Israel peace drive.

Palestinian Americans are likely to follow U.S.-based friends and relatives who have turned away from Bush because of his post-Sept. 11, 2001, policies on security, Iraq and Israel.

Polls show most Arab Americans voting for Kerry this time around.

Two subsectors among American immigrants in Israel are especially fertile for Republican culling: settlers and the Orthodox, who appreciate Bush’s hawkish tilt and his conservative values.

Mordechai Adler, a fervently religious computer specialist in Petach Tikva, said his community was ideal for recruitment.

He said that he decided to register Americans in his community when he realized how easy it was to do and how concentrated his community is. Knowing how involved his Haredi community is in the Israeli elections, he thought they would be interested in participating in the American elections.

Adler, who emigrated from Chicago 15 years ago, said he was not pushing a partisan agenda — he is happy to register both Democrats and Republicans — but the reactions he gets reflect Republican talking points.

“The war on terrorism, the security issue, Israel is at the forefront on the war on terrorism; that is going to be the major issue, that is what I’m hearing from everyone,” said Adler, who added that he was so busy registering voters last week that he barely had time to prepare for Yom Kippur.

The philosophical question of whether Americans in Israel should even exercise the right to vote has become an issue. A recent essay in the Jerusalem Post by noted author Hillel Halkin, arguing that voting should be confined to one’s country of residence, drew pages of heated response.

Others said voting was a moral obligation wherever they live, or however influential their vote was.

“It’s important for everybody to vote, whether or not it makes a difference,” said Jaime Walman, 27, from Boston, who is living in Jerusalem with her fiance, a rabbinical student.