Trump backers launch campaign in the West Bank

Republican backers of Donald Trump opened a campaign office in the West Bank in what they said was a first on behalf of an American presidential candidate.

Republicans Overseas Israel’s chief strategist, Tzvika Brot, said there was no political significance to the launch of ground operations in the contested territories. But Mark Zell, the group’s co-chairman and vice president of the parent Republicans Overseas, quickly contradicted him at the opening of the office in Karnei Shomron.

“That’s not entirely true,” Zell said, standing before a Hebrew-language Trump banner and red, white and blue balloons. “[The Republican Party platform] eliminated any reference to Israel as an occupier. That wasn’t just a play on words, that was a real statement that coincides with Donald Trump’s own statements recently that when it comes to building homes and synagogues and schools for Arabs and Jews in Judea and Samaria, this is an issue for the Israeli government to decide and the Israeli people to decide. It is not something that America should be dictating to Israel.”

Two Israeli settler politicians stood nearby as Zell spoke. Yossi Dagan, a hard-line settler activist who belongs to the ruling Likud Party, donned a Trump pin and addressed reporters himself.

“I as the head of the Shomron Regional Council and my constituents suffer greatly as a result of international pressure directed by the Obama administration that prevents us from building neighborhoods, schools and kindergartens and clearly harms our security,” Dagan said. “We as Israeli citizens cannot interfere in American politics, but I can call on every American citizen who wishes to strengthen the U.S. to register and vote.”

Republicans Overseas Israel is not affiliated with or funded by the GOP but coordinates with the party and the Trump campaign in the United States. Zell, who helped pass the new pro-Israel Republican Party platform, spoke of daily coordination with the campaign and discussion with Trump’s Israel advisers, his Jewish real estate lawyers.

Chaim Rosenfield (left) and fellow volunteer for Republicans Overseas Israel at the opening of the Karnei Shomron office on Sept. 5 photo/andrew tobin

At the Karnei Shomron office in the northern West Bank, the group had set up laptops on a kitchen table in the home of a local rabbi with New York roots. Every week, the office is to move to a home in a different West Bank settlement in an effort to reach Israeli Americans where they live — and turn them out to vote for Trump, the Republican nominee for president.

In the month since Republicans Overseas Israel launched its campaign, it has set up five offices — the others are in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Modi’in. Next up are Beit Shemesh, Holon and the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank. The settlements Efrat and Beitar Ilit, which like Karnei Shomron have large American populations, are to get the third and fourth offices in the West Bank. Unlike those within Israel, the West Bank offices will be in supporters’ homes.

The group has invested unprecedented resources in campaigning for Trump. In August, it assembled a team of Israeli strategists, and some 70 to 80 volunteers and 20 regional coordinators have since signed on, according to Brot, a former political journalist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

The strategy is to target young Americans in Israel who do not usually vote and especially immigrants from swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Brot estimated there are some 30,000 eligible swing state voters in Israel, including 10,000 to 12,000 from Florida alone. Republicans Overseas Israel thinks that could be enough to tip the election in Trump’s favor.

“There certainly are plenty of people who move to Israel from New York. But there are also plenty who come from Florida and from Pennsylvania and from Ohio,” Republican Overseas Israel counsel Abe Katzman told reporters. “In fact, you talk about a 500-vote margin in [Florida, which decided the presidential election of] 2000. Well, last election there were over 7,000 votes from Florida [in Israel]. There were thousands more from Ohio. There were thousands more from Pennsylvania. So the answer is yes, in a close election we really can make a difference.”

A latecomer to the Trump cause, Zell said he had never seen so much excitement for a U.S. presidential candidate. Public registration events throughout Israel regularly run out of Trump stickers, T-shirts and pins, he said.

Some, including Democrats Abroad Israel, the party’s official body in the country, have questioned the notion that Americans in Israel are in a tizzy over Trump. An Israel Democracy Institute poll in March found that most Israelis preferred his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, 38 percent to 28 percent. There is no recent data specifically on how Americans in Israel are likely to vote.

At least in the West Bank, though, the overwhelming number of Americans seem to be backing the real estate billionaire.

Rabbi Chaim Spring, 79, who agreed to let Republicans Overseas Israel use his home as its Karnei Shomron office (and drape it with Trump banners) described himself as a “big Trump supporter” who watches “a lot of Fox News.”

A New York native and former U.S. Army chaplain, Spring moved to the West Bank 43 years ago.

“Trump is a generous, down-to-earth person. That he has such wonderful children speaks a lot about him. His daughter is Jewish, and not only that, she’s Orthodox,” he told JTA. “You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the world to be president. You just have to be an honest person. And Hillary Clinton is not honest. That’s it.”

Andrew Tobin
Andrew Tobin

JTA Israel correspondent