TEL AVIV – It had all the trappings of an American election-watch party: Balloons. Flags. TV monitors. Uncle Sam on stilts. Hot dogs. Burgers. A cash bar. Piles of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney buttons.
But the aggressively bipartisan bash thrown by the U.S. embassy in a hotel near the beach felt a tad surreal given that polling places in many states back home would remain open for another few hours, and Obama would not declare hard-won victory until long after the revelers departed.
Still, U.S. elections are closely watched here owing to the two nations’ strong but not always lockstep Mideast policies, and because “Israel is known as America’s 51st state,” said pharmaceutical executive Tamar Doron.
Israel is also known as a mother lode of absentee voters, with an estimated 150,000 Americans eligible to cast ballots. More than 80,000 appear to have done just that this year, say Israeli-based political activists.
In the tightest battlegrounds, expatriates — the State Department says there are 6.3 million worldwide — could tip the presidential scales. Elie Pieprz, 39, who runs IVoteIsrael said swing state absentees were crucial to strengthen “the American-Israel relationship.” But a parade of Republican heavyweights who came courting this summer, consider them crucial to the GOP. Romney appeared in July to energize the faithful, meet with top Israeli officials and raise money from wealthy expats.
The geography as destiny maxim is rooted in these numbers, said Pieprz: Some 3,500 Israeli residents vote in Ohio, another 3,500 in Pennsylvania, amd 7,500 in Florida. He repeatedly reminded expats that George W. Bush won the White House because he carried Florida by a mere 537 hotly-contested votes.
Despite a recent report by the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency advocacy group, that IVoteIsrael has political and financial ties to several Republican activists, Pierpz, insisted, “We are bipartisan. The common denominator for our supporters is that they are pro-Israel. To suggest that because there is an association with any individual that this would somehow make what we are doing inappropriate is not looking at what we are doing, but looking at it through a partisan lens,” he told me during a phone interview.
IVoteIsrael takes a good deal of credit for driving up American voting here from maybe 20,000 four years ago to 80,000 in 2012. The group staged a series of issue debates between Israel’s Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad leaders, held voter sign-ups around the country and even on Election Day rushed to help voters dispatch their ballots in time to be counted back home.
Orthodox Jews were a ripe IVote demographic. They tend to be politically conservative, particularly those living in West Bank settlements that some critics call illegally occupied Palestinian territory.
Democrats Abroad Israel leader Sheldon Schorer, a lawyer who lives near Tel Aviv, noted that Americans here care far more deeply about U.S.-Israel relations, than, say, expats in Greece or France, care about the politics of those nations. But he dismissed as “propaganda” a recent poll released by IVoteIsrael claiming 85 percent of American absentee voters here support Romney. Their impact cannot be easily gauged since votes are tallied state by state.
Who are these expats, anyway? Think American Jews and Christians whose faith impelled them to settle in the Holy Land; shorter-term and permanent residents involved in business and charities; military and diplomatic personnel; students, tourists, affluent Palestinian-born U.S. citizens who returned home from such adoptive Arab-American enclaves as Dearborn, Mich.
When asked, these expats gave several reasons for their votes.
Democrat Naftali Balanson, 33, the Jerusalem-based managing editor of NGO Monitor, which tracks the Middle East human rights efforts of non-governmental agencies, backed the president in Ohio.
“I believe that Obama’s domestic policy, in particular his economic initiatives, are better articulations of the core Biblical values of tzedek and mishpat – righteousness and justice,” he said. “And I am not convinced by all the rhetoric that Obama is not a friend of Israel and that Romney would be a better choice.”
For Sophie Beausoleil, 60, who emigrated to California from Laos in 1978 and moved to Tel Aviv last year when her daughter was posted here with the U.S. Army, thought Romney was more qualified to rescue the stalled economy. “The most important thing is jobs and finances. Why give Obama four more years and let him mess up again?” she asked.
Hairdresser David Silverman, 56, a Massachusetts expat since the ‘70s, backed his home state’s former governor because “I just don’t trust Obama’s foreign policy.” He and his wife, Tamar Siegel-Silverman, a swimming teacher and shiatsu therapist, live in the religious community of Beit Shemesh west of Jerusalem. “I just think Romney is a better choice for Israel,” she added.
Not all Americans living here choose to take part in elections back home.
Jordan Herzberg, 42, who lives in Jerusalem and runs Israel Is Good Business that links companies and foundations seeking to invest in Israel and the West Bank, cited “some ethical issues with voting in the country where you do not live. I feel if you vote, you should live there with the consequences. With all due respect to Israel, the United States has many, many problems” around the world, he said, ticking off such hotspots as North Korea, Russia, China, Pakistan, Egypt and Syria.
Even the most government-savvy expats sometimes need help navigating local ballot issues from afar. U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, who votes in Washington, D.C. smiled and conceded, “I had to get in touch with friends back home on some of those referendum questions” dealing with tougher sanctions against corrupt city officials.
It seemed utterly unnecessary to ask this Obama appointee — a 2008 campaign strategist and fundraiser — how he voted.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com reporter and columnist who writes widely about politics, culture and design. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Town & Country and More; she is at work on a memoir.