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The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump's Campaign in Israel

It started with high hopes and an unprecedented full-scale campaign. But Donald Trump has proved to be a much harder sell to American voters in Israel than his supporters had hoped.

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Donald Trump supporters listen to a recorded message at a Jerusalem rally, October 26, 2016.
Donald Trump supporters listen to a recorded message at a Jerusalem rally, October 26, 2016.Credit: Ammar Awad, Reuters

It began with great fanfare in August, when Republicans Abroad, the local support organization for the GOP in Israel, kicked off the 2016 presidential election campaign, promising a historic effort to get out the vote of American citizens living in Israel and deliver it to Donald Trump.

The aggressive full-scale campaign they launched was backed by substantial independently-raised funding – none of it, they claim, coming from the Trump campaign or the Republican Party in the U.S. – and local strategic support. Their efforts, they said, reflected the grandiose belief that American Israelis overwhelmingly back the GOP presidential nominee – and that their votes could even tip the election in his favor. “This election promises to be close, and the many conservative Americans from swing states who are living in Israel could make the difference,” Marc Zell, the co-chairman of the group and vice president of the parent Republican Overseas said at the time.

It was unprecedented – the first time in recent memory that an American political party affiliate in Israel had decided not to rely solely on volunteers but to hire paid staff to push their message through special events, email and social media. Their Hebrew-speaking staffers with right-wing political experience opened for the first time, a “traveling campaign office” in the West Bank to strengthen the ties of nationalist, pro-settlement politics in Israel to the Trump effort, and invited the international media to cover it. The campaign’s highlight was a rally for 200 supporters in Jerusalem featuring a video message from Trump himself.

Zell, who had been deeply critical of Trump during primary season, returned from the Republican National Convention charged up and ready to do battle for Trump – at first, reluctantly, and later, enthusiastically. The Israeli GOP campaign was particularly aggressive about targeting young first-time voters by sending a pro-Trump message into the Hebrew mainstream, not just English-speaking enclaves. “The second and third generation here have American passports but they don’t see the importance of voting in the United States,” Zell said to Haaretz at his campaign debut. Optimistically, Zell and his team predicted that upwards of 80 percent of American citizens living in Israel – a number estimated between 200,000-300,000 will vote for Trump.

Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, (right) at the GOP launch of an election campaign for ex-pat votes in Israel on August 15, 2016.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

They were particularly focused on what they estimated as 30,000 voters who could cast their ballots in key swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Their messaging had an unofficial assist from the print media in the form of the Sheldon Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom, the largest circulation daily in Israel, which was consistently supportive of Trump and enthusiastically covered the scandals and foibles of Hillary Clinton.

But ultimately, by all measures of Trump support in Israel, the results were disappointing. There are a multitude of possible explanations: the anti-Semitic messages from Trump’s racist alt-right fans, his anti-immigration, anti-refugee and generally xenophobic messaging, his proposed Muslim ban, insults to veterans and a Gold Star family, the Access Hollywood video and accusations of sexual misconduct. It surely didn’t help that an array of prominent American Jewish conservative voices – Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, David Frum, and John Podhoretz – have been vocal about their misgivings about Trump.

It didn’t help that the Trump campaign was never really able to clearly outline their candidate’s actual positions on issues involving Israel until the final days of the election, when the candidates advisers issued a “position paper” outlining his expected policies. Even then, the move was qualified with the disclaimer that Trump had not signed off on the document, but that they were collected from positions that “have been stated, in one form or another, by Mr. Trump in various interviews or speeches given by him or on his social media accounts.”

Campaigning for Republican candidate Donald Trump in Modi'in, Israel, August 15, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Whether it is one of those reasons or all the above, poll numbers show that Donald Trump has proved to be a much harder sell to American voters in Israel – and to Israelis at large – than his supporters in Israel had hoped.

To be sure, the data available is limited. Accurate statistics on how many Americans living in Israel voted and which candidate they chose are difficult to obtain. Each American citizen living in Israel votes in a separate state and county – by mail, fax, or online balloting. Some receive assistance from the local Republican or Democratic organizations, some ask for instructions from the U.S. embassy and many do it themselves, with no local intervention whatsoever, making tradition exit polling impossible.

But by every measure at hand, it seems the Republicans who worked to spread Trump’s message in Israel, both to voters and the Israeli public at large, fell short of their goals.

Last week, as election day approached, the largest group in Israel offering U.S. voter assistance, iVote Israel, announced the results of their “exit poll” directed at those who had used their services to cast their absentee overseas ballots.

An Israeli soldier stands next to a bus stop covered with a poster from the Israeli branch of the Trump campaign, near the West Bank Jewish Settlement of Ariel October 6, 2016. Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters

The poll found that Trump won 49 percent of the Israeli-American vote, while Clinton claimed 44 percent.

The accuracy of the iVote polling has been called into question for a multitude of reasons, by Democrats and Republicans alike. But whether the 2016 number is precise, it holds value in its apparent ability to reflect what has changed between 2012 and 2016.

In contrast to Trump’s slim victory in the 2016 poll, in iVote Israel’s 2012 exit poll, GOP candidate Mitt Romney walked away with 85 percent of the vote, compared with just 14 percent for the Democratic incumbent, U.S. President Barack Obama.

For Clinton and Trump to have been running neck and neck this year among American-Israelis, in stark contrast to the massive pro-GOP gap that existed in 2012, reflects the extent to which Trump has turned American-Israeli voters off.

A lack of enthusiasm for Trump seems to apply to the Israeli public at large as well. On Friday, a poll by the Rafi Smith organization conducted for Israel Radio found 49 percent of Israelis favored Hillary Clinton, while 32 percent supported Donald Trump – 19 percent were undecided.

When broken down by Israeli party affiliation, predictably, support for Hillary Clinton was overwhelming among leftists who had voted for the Zionist Union, according to the Smith poll. But surprisingly, Trump showed he enjoyed less than overwhelming support among Likud voters. They favored him, but not by much. 44 percent of Likudniks said they backed Trump, 39 percent Clinton and 17 percent expressed no opinion.

Another poll, this one taken by the Israeli Democratic Institute several times during election season had similar results when it came to gauging Israeli views of the candidates. In mid-October, the IDI survey found 43 percent of the Israeli public said they preferred Hillary Clinton versus only 26.5 percent favoring Trump.

A month earlier, in September, the poll came up with nearly the same results: 43 percent of Israeli Jews said they would prefer to see Clinton as president, compared to 34 percent who said they preferred Trump.

Just like the iVote Israel survey, the real story of the IDI poll is the contrast with its findings from 2012. The IDI survey results displayed a sharp reversal in party preference since the previous presidential election. In October 2012, the same IDI survey found 57 percent of Israelis preferred the GOP candidate Mitt Romney over incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama’s 22 percent.

It seems clear that the well-funded messaging efforts by the Trump campaign in Israel (which, a Haaretz investigation indicated may have violated U.S. election laws) portraying Trump as Israel’s champion and Hillary Clinton as being “bad for Israel” have fallen flat. Even though the Israeli electorate currently leans right, despite the bad blood between the Democratic Obama White House and Jerusalem, deep misgivings about Trump that did not exist with Romney are present. While there was some pro-Trump enthusiasm whipped up online from his young Hebrew-speaking supporters, a scheduled mass rally showing support for Trump never materialized.

The political efforts on Trump’s behalf in Israel may have been unprecedented. But ultimately, the unpredictable personality and temperament of Donald Trump seems to have stopped the pro-GOP drift of Israelis – including voting U.S. citizens – in its tracks, or at least, slowed it down considerably.

Whether the momentum can resume will depend on who the next presidential candidate is and to an even greater extent on the question of what the Republican Party will look like after the Trump experience.

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