Republicans in the West Bank are working to drum up support for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
iVote Israel, non-partisan group that helps Americans register to vote overseas, says there are 200,000 US voters in Israel.
Republican supporters of Donald Trump have opened a campaign office in the West Bank, in what they say is a first, hoping to recruit American-Israelis living in the settlements to vote for the Republican presidential candidate.
A banner reading “Trump, the interest of Israel” in Hebrew marks the location of the makeshift headquarters, in a home in the northern West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron.
Inside, volunteers use laptops set up on the kitchen table to register American-Israelis as absentee voters, and Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, hands out “Trump for President” pins.
Zell, an American-Israeli who lives in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, was an ardent supporter of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and a harsh critic of Trump during the Republican presidential primaries, blasting Trump often on his Twitter account: “Trump is tripping over himself on foreign policy. How can we trust this guy to be Commander in Chief?” and saying “Trump is disgracing himself about 9-11.”
But after Rubio dropped out, Zell switched sides and became a fervent Trump backer.
With two months until the elections – and six weeks until the deadline for voters to register – Zell and his team are trying to sign up as many American-Israelis to vote as they can.
Republicans Overseas estimates there are 300,000 American voters in Israel, with some 60,000 or more living in West Bank settlements.
iVote Israel, a non-partisan group that helps Americans register to vote overseas, puts the number much lower at 200,000. Of those, 80,000 voted in the 2012 presidential elections, according to iVote Israel. The US Department of State does not track the number of voters overseas.
Swing state focus
The Republican supporters will focus their efforts on Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida – three swing states with relatively high Jewish populations.
“You look at Florida in 2000, where the election came down to 500 votes. Florida was a state in 2012 where there were 7,000 votes from Israel. That can make a difference,” said Abe Katsman, one of the leaders of Republicans Overseas in Israel.
The office in the West Bank, designed as a mobile unit of volunteers that will travel to settlements with large American populations, adds to Republican offices in Jerusalem, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Raanana.
Republicans Overseas plans on opening more offices soon, including in Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc in the southern West Bank. Republicans Overseas raises its money locally, not relying on funding from the Republican party or the Trump campaign, according to Zell, though he said they coordinate with the campaign daily.
“Americans in Israel have had enough of the last eight years and don’t want what many would perceive to be another four years of continuing those policies. I’m not claiming that they all love Donald Trump – not at all – but I think they see it as preferable [to Democratic nominee Clinton],” Katsman said.
Zell made the case in the Times of Israel that recent changes in the Republican Party’s policy on Israel could boost support for Trump among voters there: “[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,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
Sharp move to right
At the Republican National Convention in July, Republicans adopted a platform that dropped any reference to a Palestinian state or “two democratic states,” signaling a sharp move to the right on Israel.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank have come under repeated criticism from the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union. Many consider Israeli settlements illegal, while the United States calls them “illegitimate” and an obstacle to peace.
A March poll from the Israel Democracy Institute found Clinton held a wide lead over Trump among Israelis, with 38% of those questioned preferring Clinton and 22% supporting Trump. But the poll was not specific to American-Israelis.
“They’re desperate,” said Sheldon Schorer, a leader of Democrats Abroad Israel. “They’re trying to make a push.”
“They’re trying to make some inroads with the recent immigrants who came in the last four years, many of whom are Orthodox and therefore tend to be more conservative, many of whom live in the administered territories and don’t feel comfortable with the Obama administration, which is against settlements in these territories.”
“I think that’s perfectly legitimate politics and let ‘em do it,” said Schorer,” but I don’t think that they’re going to find the results that they want to. The average Israeli-American voter is not a Republican and I don’t think will vote for Trump.”