As U.S. officials descend on Israel, Republicans rally for votes

Left to right, Matthew Brooks, Ari Fleischer and Elie Pieprz in Modi’in registering American citizens in Israel to vote in November’s U.S. presidential elections, July 11, 2012.

By Ben Sales, JTA

JERUSALEM — For a few days at least, the old joke about Israel being the 51st U.S. state feels true.

A litany of U.S. officials and politicians are parading through Israel this month, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the end of the month. In addition, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns either have visited or will visit this month.

With the exception of Romney’s visit, the trips are not so much about the U.S. presidential campaign as U.S. policy concerns in the region. Clinton’s meetings on Monday focused on Egypt’s new government, the effort to halt Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

But there’s also a good bit of U.S. politicking happening in Israel.

Last week, Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former spokesman, and Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, spent three days touring Israel stumping for Romney under the auspices of the RJC. They held events in places with large numbers of Americans, like Jerusalem and Modiin, and spoke with reporters.

Their mission on the trip was two-fold: to convince Americans in Israel to register to vote — and cast those votes for Romney — and to get American expats to convince their relatives back home to vote Republican, too.

“I don’t want to have a president where we have to wonder does he or does he not have Israel’s back,” Fleischer said at a July 10 event in Jerusalem that drew about 120 people. “The choice is between pushing Israel around as President Obama has done, and Governor Romney, who will stand strong by Israel’s side.”

Estimates of the American population in Israel vary from 100,000 to 250,000. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem does not offer an official number, saying only that 80,000 Americans live in and around Jerusalem. On their trip, Brooks and Fleischer talked about 150,000 potential voters, a figure that includes both dual U.S.-Israeli citizens and students and other temporary residents here.

Fleischer described the American expatriate community in Israel as similarly sized to Toledo, Ohio, or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., two midsized cities in swing states. And large numbers of Americans in Israel hail from those swing states, which means their absentee ballots could sway the election.

The message that Brooks tried to hammer home in Israel was that Jewish support for Obama is on the wane. At the event in Jerusalem, he made note of an American Jewish Committee poll in April that showed Jewish support for Obama had fallen to 61 percent. In 2008, Obama captured 74 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a new study; previous estimates had put the figure at 78 percent.

“Republicans are making inroads. People who voted for Obama have buyer’s remorse now,” Brooks said. “His support is eroding in the Jewish community.”

Despite his drop in popularity, Obama remains more popular among Jews than among Americans generally.

In Israel, polls show Obama remains deeply unpopular. Among American voters in Israel, polls conducted after the 2008 election by Keevoon, a Jerusalem-based research firm, found that 76 percent of those surveyed voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) vs. 24 percent for Obama.

Despite the perception that American Israelis don’t like Obama, Hillel Schenker, the vice chairman of Democrats Abroad Israel, says he expects the majority of U.S. voters in Israel to support the president — as Jews in America are likely to do.

Obama “has consistently expressed his clear dedication and commitment to Israel’s fundamental security needs,” Schenker said. “His sensitivity toward Israel’s security needs cannot be compared to anyone else.”

iVoteIsrael is one of several efforts in Israel to register American voters. Along with the RJC, iVoteIsrael cosponsored the Jerusalem event featuring Fleischer and Brooks, and the organization activists placed voter registration forms under every seat.

The organization is officially nonpartisan, but its founder, Elie Pieprz, is a former Republican activist who used to work with Republicans Abroad Israel and in America as a lobbyist for the conservative nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform. Pieprz said he cut his ties with those groups before starting iVoteIsrael.

“It’s important to have strong engagement of ideas on both sides,” he said. “If you have one side engaging and one side not engaging, that can lead to apathy.”

iVoteIsrael has about a dozen employees and 50 to 60 volunteers in Israel. The organization also is sponsoring a series of debates immediately before Romney’s visit between local Republicans and Democrats. Pieprz would not say how many voters the group has registered.

The visits by U.S. figures are helping ratchet up the volume of the presidential campaign in Israel, but Republicans Abroad Israel and Democrats Abroad Israel have been doing campaign work here for years. Both partisan organizations plan to promote their respective parties in the coming months with Op-Eds in Israeli and Jewish publications.

Whatever the outcome in November, Pieprz says all the attention given to U.S. voters here will end up benefiting Israel.

“There are American citizens here in Israel and we want to be treated that way,” he said. “It’s not about how America treats an ally. It’s about how America treats American citizens.”