An early voting center - Reuters - October 30, 2012.
An early voting center in Columbus, Ohio, October 30, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Eighty-five percent of American voters in Israel cast their ballots for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to an exit poll released on Thursday by the get-out-the-vote organization iVoteIsrael. The results of the poll prompted further questions about the group, which has already come under suspicion over its alleged ties to conservative backers.

Hillel Schenker, chairman of Democrats Abroad Israel, dismissed the poll as unscientific. “All they’re doing is providing information about the people they polled at their polling stations, in places where there are predominantly Orthodox and right-wing Jews,” he said.

Schenker said that “no one knows” how Americans in Israel actually voted because there were no reliable polls and states do not track absentee ballots by country.

But he argued that demographics and geography were strong predictors. Voters who live in major cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva or on kibbutzim likely voted for President Barack Obama, he said, while those living on settlements and studying in religious schools in Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem likely voted for Romney.

Marc Zell, the chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, called Schenker “out of touch with reality.” He said the 85 percent figure was “very much consistent with our own internal polling."

Asked about iVoteIsrael’s reported links to Republican billionaire Ronald S. Lauder, Zell said: “The charge that they’re biased is just silly. I thought they’ve done an excellent job of getting people registered.”

It was a busy week for both Zell and Schenker; the latter participated in a debate in Jerusalem on Sunday and both attended a panel discussion at Tel Aviv University on Monday.

The panel featured Israeli academics, journalists and politicians who reflected on the question of why the U.S. election matters for Israel.

“The presidential election is at least as important, maybe even more important, than our election,” said Dov Weissglas, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Our dependence on the U.S. is almost total. Therefore anything and everything which happens in the U.S. is a matter of utmost concern to the State of Israel.”

According to CNN anchor Jonathan Mann, who moderated the discussion, the number of Americans in Israel expected to vote topped 100,000, up from about 30,000 in 2008.

According to the iVoteIsrael poll, the number was closer to 80,000.

“Right now, there are enough Americans in Israel that [they] could literally swing the election,” he said.

While the Iranian nuclear threat and the Arab Spring were briefly considered, the panelists spent much of the evening analyzing the American president’s historical relationship with Israel.

Yossi Beilin, a former government minister and architect of the Oslo Accords, argued that the president has always had an outsize impact on Israeli affairs. “Just think about our history: Truman and the birth of the state, Eisenhower and the Sinai operation, Carter and peace with Egypt, Clinton and peace with Jordan and Oslo,” he said.

But Yossi Shain, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University, countered that the American president cannot single-handedly foster peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We have seen time and again that American presidents are entangled in processes that are collapsing,” he said. “So American presidents can be very deeply involved but only if there is a propensity on the part of the Israelis to be engaged with their partners.”

For many in Israel, the election has become a source of fascination, said Channel 2 reporter Dana Weiss. “Let’s face it, it’s the best reality show on earth,” she said. “We all want to know who’s going to win.”

American voters who spoke with Anglo File after the discussion seemed to be split between the two candidates.

Elissa Zimmerman, who immigrated to Israel in 2004 and is studying political science and Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, said that she planned to vote for Romney this week by absentee ballot.

“I used to be a one-issue voter, on Israel, but just look at the state of the economy,” she said.

Zimmerman, 27, related the story of a friend who studied to be a civil engineer but decided to immigrate to Israel after failing to find work.

“She [immigrated] because she could get a job in her profession here and she couldn’t do that in the States,” Zimmerman said. “It boggles me.”

Wearing a U.S.A. T-shirt and Obama pin, Henry Abimbola said he had already voted before arriving in Israel two weeks ago to begin a master’s program at Tel Aviv University in public health.

“I’m a big fan of Obama,” said Abimbola, 48, who hails from San Antonio, Texas. He said he was convinced that Obama shared Israel’s deep concerns about a nuclear Iran.

But no matter who wins next week, he said, “I don’t see in the short run any difference in their policy toward Israel.”