Election interest among Americans in Israel surging

Absentee Ballots

Election 2004

October 16, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Like most American citizens living in Israel, Steven Shnider didn't cast a ballot in the last presidential election four years ago. Neither did Stuart Schnee, although he is an avid follower of politics back home.

This year, both men are voting, and thousands of others here are expected to follow suit.

Nowhere overseas does the dominant issue of this campaign - how to make America safe from terrorism - resonate more than with people living in Israel, where Palestinian suicide bombings targeting civilian buses and cafes are routine, and residents feel they are on the front lines of what has become a global war.

"This election is a much more critical one," said Shnider, who grew up in Maryland but voted this year in New Hampshire, his last official U.S. address.

"In the past, I wouldn't have thought that it's important to vote," said Schnee, who is from New York and works for a public relations firm in Israel. "But I think the closeness of the last election woke me up a bit."

In Israel, which has the fifth-largest American expatriate community in the world, a fight is on for every vote. The chairmen of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad have held dozens of voter registration drives in bars, shopping malls and on the Internet. They are collecting ballots and delivering them to the U.S. Consulate.

Less than three weeks before the election, political operatives are fielding calls from people who suddenly feel that this time their vote counts, especially for voters registered in swing states.

"We'll take you if you live in New York, but we love it when you're from Florida," said Mark Zober, chairman of the Democratic campaign committee in Israel. "People are calling saying they haven't voted in 30 years, didn't even know they could vote."

Florida is a key example of the role votes from Israel could play in the outcome of the election. Campaign officials here say 750 Floridians in Israel voted by absentee ballot in the 2000 election. Bush carried the state by 537 votes.

Campaign organizers say they have collected new registrations from 1,500 people from Florida, along with 2,000 from Ohio and 750 from Pennsylvania, two other swing states. Those numbers, organizers say, don't include potentially thousands of other Americans in Israel who registered without the assistance of Democrats Abroad or Republicans Abroad.

Interest is high

There is no way of knowing how many of the newly registered voters will cast ballots, but campaign officials and Americans here say interest in the election is surging.

About 14,000 American citizens in Israel voted in 2000. Republican and Democratic campaign workers estimate that nearly three times as many people, up to 40,000, might vote this year. An estimated 250,000 American citizens live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and about 120,000 are eligible to vote.

There are about 30,000 Palestinian-Americans, a largely overlooked group.

Democratic and Republican officials in Israel acknowledge that they have not done much outreach to Palestinian-Americans, who tend to be business people who are wealthier and travel more than other Palestinians living here.

The number of Palestinians who have obtained absentee ballots is difficult to ascertain because only two groups are working to register voters. They say a few hundred, maybe as many as 700, might vote next month.

Sam Bahour, a prominent Palestinian author and business executive who lives in Ramallah and is eligible to vote in Ohio, a swing state, complained that neither Democrats nor Republicans have made a significant effort to recruit Palestinian voters. But he also said that both candidates' support for Israel has left Palestinians feeling disenfranchised.

"The gaps between the two candidates on Palestine is virtually nonexistent," he said, adding that he was disheartened that there were no questions about the conflict during the first Bush-Kerry debate. He sent away for a ballot four months ago but has yet to receive it.

"After four years of destruction here, the biggest ally to Israel is silent," he said, mentioning an old Palestinian saying that people "prefer an ambulance over a hearse. I'm voting for Kerry because I think he's the ambulance. The result of Bush's destructive policy is already on the ground. At least with Kerry, there is a potential that he will change his policy."

Terror issue dominates

For Jewish Americans living here, the interest in this year's election is easy to understand.

"Here, there is only one issue that is important: who is best for Israel, Bush or Kerry," said Zober, the Democrats Abroad in Israel chairman, a native Californian who has lived off and on in Israel since 1972.

"Americans living abroad, particularly in Israel, view the war on terror and America's support for Israel higher than the rest of the local issues," said Zober's counterpart, Kory Bardash, the chairman of the Republicans Abroad in Israel.

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