White House election race reaches streets of Tel Aviv

(Reuters) – “You have to thank Trump” posters in Hebrew suddenly started appearing on minibuses in Tel Aviv this week, as Republican ads brought the race for the White House onto the streets of Israel.

Democrats are also targeting American-Israelis. They arranged a 40% discount with the courier service DHL for voters whose home states require overseas ballots to be sent by mail.

Votes everywhere are precious as the U.S. election approaches. Israel is in focus because many dual nationality American-Israelis are registered in swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania, which could help decide the race.

There are no reliable statistics on American-Israelis’ political leanings, but Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, estimated there were 25,000-30,000 eligible Florida voters in the country.

“That could be the deciding factor in that state’s contest,” he said, pointing to George W. Bush’s narrow Florida victory in 2000, which handed him the election.

Republican President Donald Trump has had an outsized influence in Israel during his term in office, delighting many by recognising Jerusalem as its capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s supporters have sent election postcards to Israeli Democrats and independents from swing states, where, they say, around half of American-Israeli Democrats are registered.

“Trump has used Israel as a partisan football to serve his own constituencies, like Christian Evangelicals,” Democrats Abroad Israel chair Heather Stone told Reuters.

Biden, she said, was “a long-time friend of Israel who will help keep alive” the vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The parties’ estimates of the number of eligible dual citizens resident in Israel range from 100,000 to 300,000. Some experts who track the information said it was likely to be more than 250,000.

Half a dozen American-Israeli voters interviewed by Reuters identified the coronavirus crisis, economic policy and candidates’ stands on Israel as guiding their decisions.

One New York voter, Hezi Kugler, said he was voting for Biden to bring “a return to decency and a restoration of integrity” at the highest level of government.

“Trump has done some things that are good for Israeli interests, but his lack of global leadership has created an enormous vacuum in the region that is generally bad for Israel,” said Kugler, 62, an energy industry professional in Tel Aviv.

In the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, Republican David Wiener said Trump was the right choice because he approached thorny Middle East conflicts “from a business perspective”.

Last month, Trump hosted a White House ceremony in which Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed deals to establish formal relations.

“Gulf countries see Israel as an opportunity to expand their industries … Trump took advantage of that with the UAE,” said Wiener, 39, an aerospace engineer registered in Pennsylvania.

Although the election is most visible in Israel, there are also many Palestinians eligible to vote.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem has encouraged voting by both sides, hosting Facebook live events with Arabic subtitles geared towards residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

For Democrats Abroad, Stone said she was working with Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem and in the Palestinian diaspora to get out the vote.

One East Jerusalem activist, Kefah Abukhdeir, said Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face multiple barriers to sending votes abroad, including unreliable postal services that she called “practically non-existent”.

“We haven’t had much luck turning out voters here,” she said.

In Gaza, where an estimated 300 American-Palestinians live, Kamal Abusharia said he hoped to vote for the first time since the early 1990s in part due to anger towards Trump.

But he held out little hope that Biden would reverse all of Trump’s pro-Israeli moves were he to win.

“I don’t think that Biden would work to (return) the embassy (to Tel Aviv) or put the issue of Palestinian refugees back on the table,” he said.