“Fired up!” That’s how Heather Stone, chair of Democrats Abroad Israel responds when asked how members of her organization feel about the fast-approaching 2018 midterms on November 6.
Democratic “get out the vote” activities, Stone says, have been taking place in Israel since last spring. Using the non-partisan platform VoteFromAbroad.Org, Democrats Abroad have been helping U.S. citizens in Israel register to vote and request and submit their ballots, both virtually and in person. Despite all indications to the contrary, Stone says they are hoping against hope that a chance remains for the Democrats to win a Senate majority as well.
There are no authoritative figures regarding the number of American citizens living in Israel who can potentially vote in U.S. elections by registering and requesting absentee ballots - but it has been estimated at approximately 200,000.
“We are finding the interest on the [Israeli] street for supporting Democratic candidates very high,” Stone, who has chaired the group for the past year, enthused. “In particular, the overseas students are really really excited, the energy is high. We know there is tremendous energy among Democrats in the States, and it is nice to see there is tremendous energy here too.”
In contrast to Stone’s enthusiastic willingness to share her party’s widely-publicized activities, leaders of Republicans Overseas, the GOP counterpart, were highly reluctant to discuss whether, and to what extent, they are involved in any midterm efforts.
Stone reports the site used by Democrats Abroad has been visited over 400 times from Israel, and a recruiting drive has increased Democrats Abroad membership by 8 percent. It now has over 2,200 members. Using the Democrats Abroad 24-hour phone bank platform, volunteers to Israel can place calls to registered Democrats in crucial House and Senate districts, reminding them to register and vote. More than 100 Democrats Abroad volunteers have participated thus far, she says. Personally, she has been making 150 calls per week.
Marc Zell, co-president of Republicans Overseas, responded to a query by Haaretz by email saying that the group has “witnessed extraordinary interest in registration and voting in the midterm elections and has been assisting voters in Israel in the process. More importantly, we have been focusing on key Senate and House races in the States to assist pro-Israel GOP candidates to keep their districts Republican or in some cases to flip them to the GOP. These efforts appear to be bearing fruit.”
When asked to specify exactly what those activities were, he did not respond.
Abe Katsman, counsel to Republicans Overseas, was apologetic as he explained that the group “was not interested in revealing” the “original” methods it is using to help the GOP effort.
“I don’t want to get into specifics, other than that it's a mix of what you would expect from the conventional methods and what we are trying that are a bit different,” Katsman said. “It’s nothing sinister, but we are trying to get creative, and we don’t care to go in detail.”
In 2016, Republicans Abroad were extremely active, running a high profile pro-Trump effort.
Katsman noted that the kind of work the Democrats were doing was less necessary in the age of the internet and mail-in ballots since, after the 2016 efforts “lots of people are registered,” and in some states - pointing to his state of Washington as an example - ballots are mailed to voters automatically without needing to be requested.
The Democrats’ Stone challenged that assertion. “That’s just not true. Overseas voters need to request their ballot every calendar year to get their ballots. There are just a few West Coast states that automatically send absentee ballots [like Washington]. The vast majority of voters in Israel need to make that request.”
She said she didn’t understand the Republican reluctance to discuss their activities. “I think they make it seem very suspicious. Why would they be so secretive? They were very much in our face during 2015-2016.”
A likely explanation for what appears to be Republican complacency is confidence that American Israelis casting their ballots in the midterms will be supportive of a president of whom Israelis approve of in record numbers. A recent Pew poll found 69 percent of Israelis expressing confidence in Trump as president - the second highest percentage in the world.
“The great majority of people in Israel feel that U.S. policy on Israel is on the right page,” said Katsman. “They should want both houses of Congress to remain under Republican control - the Democrats would throw sand in the gears of the administration’s Israel policies.”
But Stone took issue with that assertion as well. “American Israelis are not one-issue voters. As much as American Israelis might be happy with the fact that, for example, the embassy was moved to Jerusalem, that is not in and of itself going to determine what is good for Israel over the long run - certainly not what is good for America. Israel is safest when America is strong and honoring its values as a democracy and setting an example for all democracies. And that’s not happening.”
One thing both Stone and Katsman agreed on: a group that once had a very public presence among local U.S. voters has completely disappeared. IVoteIsrael made its debut in June 2012 in the run-up to the Obama-Romney campaign, under the slogan “Voting From Israel Made Easy” with the declared goal of turning U.S. voters in Israel into an influential political force. Critics from both sides of the political map claimed that voters who registered through the group did not receive their ballots in time to vote, effectively disenfranchising them. Republicans Overseas also complained that the group refused to provide data on those who registered through its website.
“I assume that the people who are funding it have decided that it is not worthwhile to do so in the midterms,” said Katsman, who took issue what he called “the widespread belief that IVoteIsrael have been an arm of the Republicans in Israel.”
While IVoteIsrael were active during the 2014 midterms, this year, “They are nowhere to be found,” said Stone.
The question of who is behind IVoteIsrael has remained unanswered - with no funders or staff listed on their website. In 2012, a watchdog group found it to have had ties to the GOP and businessman Ronald Lauder, formerly a close Netanyahu friend and supporter.
Eitan Charnoff, who was IVoteIsrael's national director in 2016, could not be reached for comment. It was recently revealed that Charnoff appeared on a list of former employees of Psy-Group, the mysterious Israeli company reported to have been investigated by the FBI in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged illegal interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and subsequently, that he was involved in covert anti-BDS efforts.
“It leaves one to wonder what the real objectives of IVoteIsrael were” in 2016, said Stone. “Were they just gathering data - or really trying to help people vote?”
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