'Highly Motivated': In Israel, U.S. Voters Lean Toward Trump
Israel, estimated to host the world's third-largest community of eligible U.S. voters abroad, is seeing record-high participation in this year's election, according to local Republican and Democratic activists. Judging from President Trump's popularity in Israel and the demographics of Israel's American expatriate community of predominantly Orthodox Jews, pollsters believe many U.S. voters in Israel have cast their ballots for the president.
Palestinians, meanwhile, overwhelmingly disfavor Trump, a recent poll shows. But some Palestinian Americans living under Israeli rule in Jerusalem have avoided voting in the U.S. election, fearing it will flag them to authorities as American citizens. Palestinians who obtain U.S. citizenship can be stripped of their Israeli residency rights in the city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim.
The divergent presidential preferences stem from Trump favoring Israel over the Palestinians. His policies have drawn objections from liberal Jewish groups and Palestinian rights advocates in the United States. But they've won Trump support from many U.S. Jewish voters who reside in Israel.
Pro-Trump activists in Israel have mounted perhaps the most visible Trump reelection campaign outside the United States. Last month, a pack of motorcycles with Trump flags rumbled through Jerusalem's cobblestoned Old City past Palestinian shops. Trump posters in Hebrew were plastered on minibuses in Tel Aviv, the heart of liberal Israel. This week, Israeli settlers recited prayers for a Trump victory at the biblical tomb of Abraham, a shrine uneasily shared between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Trump administration "just came and flipped the script. They said, we don't have to hinge peace in the Middle East on the Palestinians," says Etana Hecht, an Israeli American voter who arrived in Jerusalem with a convoy of cars decorated in Trump flags. She praised Trump's diplomatic agreements brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, deals that sidelined Palestinians but enthused Israelis.
"We're already looking to make our son's bar mitzvah in Abu Dhabi," Hecht says.
The administration continued making pro-Israel announcements in the lead-up to Tuesday's election. David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, posed before cameras last week to unveil new U.S. policies supporting Israel's controversial West Bank settlements and its claims to contested Jerusalem.
Jews in Israel support Trump more than Jews do in the United States. A survey last month found 75% of U.S. Jews preferred Democratic candidate Joe Biden and 22% favored Trump. But recent polls of Israelis have found nearly the opposite. A survey released on Monday found 70% of Israeli Jews preferred Trump and 13% preferred Biden, with 17% unsure.
The optics of pro-Trump support in Israel may sway some U.S.-based Jewish and evangelical voters, pollsters suggest.
"American Jews living in Israel say, 'Hey, the guy's OK' — I think it does have some kind of influence on voters," including their relatives in the U.S., says Israeli American pollster Mitchell Barak. A poll he conducted of U.S. citizens in Israel in 2016 found 49% support for Trump over 44% for Hillary Clinton.
But U.S. voting rates in Israel tend to be low. According to U.S. government data from 2018, Israel is home to an estimated 183,500 eligible U.S. voters — only Canada and the U.K. have more. But only about 15,600 U.S. voters were registered with Israeli mailing addresses in the 2016 presidential election, according to figures compiled by a U.S. voter data mining company and provided to Barak.
Even if all Israel-based U.S. voters cast ballots, they are spread among several U.S. states, and the numbers would not be enough to sway any state's vote tally, according to Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli American pollster in Tel Aviv.
"In short, it's just not about us," she says.
Still, some U.S. immigrants to Israel who had stopped voting in U.S. elections decades ago are voting this time.
"In the past they thought it wasn't appropriate, living here, but this time they felt highly motivated," said Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel.
The Democratic Party's Israel chapter says it led a socially distanced campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic but saw its membership double. An online voter registration platform favored by overseas Democrats had triple the number of users in Israel this election season than it did in 2016.
"This is the real ground game — helping voters to vote day in and day out for months — not flashy motorcades the day before the election," says Heather Stone, chair of Democrats Abroad Israel.
Biden has support from some unexpected spots, she says, such as the heavily Orthodox Jewish city of Beit Shemesh, and Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"There's been an uptick in membership from Efrat. Before we had just a couple. ... [Now] we have a big cluster, dozens," Stone says.
Though Palestinians pin hopes on Biden for a more evenhanded U.S. policy in the Middle East, eligible U.S. voters in Palestinian areas are harder to quantify, and many decline to vote.
Palestinian American businessman Osama Salah says he knows U.S. citizens in East Jerusalem who did not vote in U.S. elections because they were afraid Israel would strip them of their local residency rights if the U.S. Embassy shared their voter registration information with Israel.
HaMoked, a Palestinian rights advocacy group, says there is no evidence that voting in U.S. elections puts Palestinian Americans at any risk. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem says it is against U.S. law to share citizens' private records, such as voter registration, without their consent.
But by Israeli law, Palestinians residents of Jerusalem who obtain U.S. citizenship or leave Jerusalem for more than seven years are at risk of losing their residency rights in the city. Palestinian Americans often fight legal battles to restore their residency, Israeli lawyer Adi Lustigman says.
Some U.S. citizens who married local Palestinians are in lengthy legal battles to gain Israeli residency papers. They worry that registering to vote and showing a political affiliation could get them into trouble with Israel or erroneously assume that voting means an affiliation with the U.S. government.
Kefah Abukhdeir, a Palestinian American in Jerusalem originally from Atlanta, says she has failed to recruit enough other activists to start her own chapter of Democrats Abroad for Palestinians.
"People don't feel that safe being part of something that will be associated with the U.S.," Abukhdeir says. "They get intimidated because they think they'll be on some type of grid."
Sami Sockol contributed to this report from Jerusalem.