KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank – By opening an office in the heart of a major Jewish settlement, was the Donald Trump campaign in Israel trying to make a political statement?
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Not at all, said Tzvika Brot, its newly appointed director, when asked by reporters about the particular choice of venue. “All we want to do is to get American citizens interested in voting in the U.S. election to register now before it’s too late,” he said on Monday during the official launching event.
But Mark Zell, the American-born lawyer who serves as chair of Republican Overseas Israel, thought otherwise.
“While Tzvika said this is not a political statement as such,” he interjected, “that’s not entirely true. I worked along with representatives of the Trump campaign to get passed a historic amendment to the Republican Party platform, and this amendment specifically omitted any reference to Israel as an occupier and coincided with Trump’s own statements that building homes, synagogues and schools for Arabs and Jews in Judea and Samaria was an issue for the Israeli government and people to decide – not something that America should be dictating to Israel.”
The new makeshift office, set up in the dining room of a local Trump supporter here, was proudly touted as the first U.S. campaign headquarters ever opened over the “Green Line” – a reference to Israel’s internationally recognized borders.
Echoing Zell’s message that Trump is good for the settler movement was the guest of honor at the event: Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council. Smiling for the cameras as a Donald Trump campaign button was pinned to his lapel, Dagan stopped short of endorsing the Republican candidate, noting that he is not an American citizen. But at the same time, the rising Likud Party star did not make any attempt to hide where his sympathies lie.
“As head of this regional council, I can tell you that because of pressure from the Obama administration, we are prevented from building schools, from building kindergartens and from building new neighborhoods, and our security has suffered,” he said. “As an Israeli citizen, I cannot interfere in American politics, but I call on every citizen of the United States here in Israel, whoever in interested in strengthening the United States, to go out and register to vote.”
Dagan said he was about to leave for a trip to Washington D.C., where he had a series of meetings scheduled with members of Congress aimed at “explaining to them the importance of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem.”
Dagan was not the only right-wing politician invited to the event. Two Knesset members – Yehuda Glick of Likud and Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beiteinu – had confirmed their attendance but were instructed at the last moment by their respective party leaders to cancel their participation. Israel’s political leaders have been careful not to pick sides in the upcoming U.S. election.
When asked about Trump’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zell said: “I do not propose to speak for him, but what I know from discussions with his Israel advocacy group – it’s not that he doesn’t want to intervene, but that he doesn’t want to dictate any kind of solution.”
According to Zell, the Republican presidential candidate does not believe “in any particular solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And that is really historic,” he noted. “He doesn’t come with any pre-fabricated answers. He’s open to listening.”
Despite statements made several months ago by the Republican presidential candidate about the need to reassess America’s financial assistance to countries around the world, including to Israel, Zell promised that Trump would not cut American aid to Israel if elected president. “Donald Trump supports foreign aid to Israel, and the reason he supports foreign aid to Israel is that the United States gets back from Israel, in the form of technology, intelligence and other things, far more than it actually invests in foreign aid here,” he said.
Referring to the possibility of an electoral victory by the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Abe Katzman, counsel to Republicans Overseas Israel, told reporters: “Israel will make the best of it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant differences between the parties. The Republicans have become extremely Zionist, and they get it – they understand the importance of the relationship between Israel and America. The Democrats – I wish I could say the same thing for them.”
Zell was less diplomatic. “One of the great motivations for all of us to work for Donald Trump is to prevent that possibility,” he said, referring to a Clinton win. “Her tenure as secretary of state was one colossal failure after the next, particularly here in the Middle East.”
The campaign headquarters in Karnei Shomron is the fourth to be set up by the local Trump team in recent weeks. The others are in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Modi’in. Next week, Zell said, another three offices would be opened in Rehovot, Beit Shemesh and the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank. Zell, who also serves as vice president of the international organization Republicans Overseas, is a resident of the Gush Etzion settlement of Tekoa.
Sources close to the campaign said that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” had been invested in encouraging and assisting American supporters of the Republican Party living in Israel to register to vote. A disproportionately large number of American-Israeli citizens live in West Bank settlements, where according to figures provided by Republicans Overseas Israel, they comprise about 25 percent of the total population. Brot said the goal of the campaign was to get 200,000 Americans living in Israel to vote in the election. “We believe that at least 70 percent of them will vote Republican,” he said.
The office opened in Karnei Shomron is temporarily located in the home of Rabbi Chaim Springer, an American citizen who moved to Israel 40 years ago. “When people ask me why I support Trump, I tell them that what impresses me most about him is that he’s an honest man and he has a great relationship with his children,” he said.
The plan is to move the new West Bank office around to different settlements in the Samaria region over the next few weeks in order to facilitate those requiring additional assistance in the voter registration process.