If you want to sadden a Republican activist living in Israel, ask that person to imagine how he or she would feel be feeling right now if Marco Rubio had been nominated as the party’s presidential candidate instead of Donald Trump. You’d be poking at a painful sore.
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This election was supposed to be historically successful for GOP activists in the Jewish state. Over the past decade, the Republicans have been gaining steam among American voters in Israel, fueled by a feeling of unhappiness with the Obama White House.
Having brought in record levels of support for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 - one poll showed that 85% of Americans in Israel who cast absentee ballots voted for Romney - local Republicans had been eagerly expecting to push those numbers even higher in 2016.
Deep dislike and mistrust of prospective Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, residual anger from the Iran deal battle and Rubio’s solid ‘pro-Israel’ voting bona fides were all going to be a perfect recipe to motivate an unprecedented number of the 300,000 U.S. citizens in Israel to register, and cast their ballots for a Republican.
But Donald Trump dashed that dream.
Like many GOP leaders, key Republicans in Israel have had major misgivings about Trump since the beginning of his campaign and even now are struggling with the idea of fully supporting him as their presumptive nominee for president.
The co-chair of Republicans Overseas Israel chapter, Marc Zell, finds himself in a particularly uncomfortable position.
When Haaretz interviewed Zell in April, he said he was even contemplating resigning as vice president of the organization because of his difficulty with the idea of campaigning for Trump. He said he would cancel his scheduled participation in the Republican convention in July if it turned into a “Trump coronation.”
In primary season, Zell campaigned passionately on behalf of Trump’s rivals, calling the New York businessman and reality star “dangerous in more ways than one,” and saying he “wasn’t qualified” for the White House.
But a few months seems to have made a big difference. Not only has Zell kept all his titles, he also plans to attend the convention after all. “I offered my resignation and it was rejected by the executive board,” Zell said. “As for the the convention - at first I refused to go but I was ordered by the executive board of Republicans Overseas although I am not enthusiastic about it.”
Zell compared his attitude towards Trump’s candidacy to the famous stages of grief. “People like me experienced denial, rejection, anger and then finally acceptance of the realities. These people were outspokenly opposed to Trump in the primaries, but now faced with the Hillary vs. Donald choice, have reconciled themselves to the Trump candidacy.”
Back in April, when asked about Trump’s Israel policies, Zell said that Jews who “take solace in the fact that he has a Jewish son-in-law and daughter and grandkids are just fooling themselves.”
Today, he says reports that Jewish daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner appear to be in Trump’s inner circle, wield real power (they were widely credited with pressuring Trump to jettison controversial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski) and that Kushner is shaping Israeli policy changes, makes him “comfortable with (Trump’s) likely policy stance on Israel and the Middle East.”
Still, Zell says that for him, this race “is not going to be driven with the passion about our own candidate, but on the other hand, the passion will derive from a different source - concern, even fear of a Hillary (Clinton) presidency.”
Kory Bardash, Zell’s co-chair has been far less outspoken than Zell about Trump’s shortcomings, but agrees completely when it comes to Hillary . “Trump’s an unknown, but her policies as Secretaries of State have proven to be disastrous. I would feel more confident with him.”
That confidence would grow, he said, “with the right advisors and articulated foreign policy principles.”
Supporters like Zell and Bardash have their fingers crossed hoping Trump’s vice presidential running mate will be a name like Newt Gingrich or a similar stalwart on U.S. economic, military and political support for Israel, preferably with a good relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu..
Not all Republicans in Israel are dragging their heels when it comes to Trump - there are some who have liked him from the beginning, and cast their ballots for him in the primaries.
Lisa Gladstone, a loyal Republican voter who voted Trump in the primary, brushes aside Trump’s personality and controversial statements. She is confident he will support Israel and that, she says, is what matters to her. She believes Hillary is “two-faced and a deplorable person” and that Obama “has been an absolute enemy to Israel. The Iran deal scared the hell out of me.”
“I’m a one issue person - the survival of Israel is what I give a hoot about. I’m a Jewish Israeli American, I’m not an American Jew, my first and only concern is Israel.”
Jon Surasky, a former Florida resident living in Israel, describes himself as a classic anti-establishment Trump voter. Surasky voted for Trump in the primaries because he was “looking for an alternative to Washington’s ways.”
He said he “firmly believes Donald Trump is pro-Israel. I am not worried what he will do as far as the relationship with Israel. I think he can only improve it. I think the Republican leadership both in Israel and overseas have to become a little more enthusiastic when it comes to Trump if they don’t want to deal with the alternative.”
However, some Israeli Republicans, as much as they would prefer a member of their party in the White House, cannot stomach casting their vote for Trump. Kira Sirote, who lives in Raanana, consistently a GOP supporter, says she is unhappy about having to choose between two candidates, and won't give her support to either one.
In regard to Trump, she said, “what I resent most is the idea of the race for the President of the United States being turned into a reality show ... I deeply resent my sacred right to vote being perverted in this manner. I will most likely vote for the 3rd party candidate - Libertarian, perhaps - or even write in a candidate ... Whoever of the two main candidates is voted in, it will not be my hand that checked that box.”
While Israel may not be largest of communities of American voters living abroad, it contains one of the highest percentage of U.S. citizens who take the time to register and vote.
Many of these voters hail from important swing states like Florida and Ohio. Israel is home to two of the most active chapters of both Democrats Overseas and Republicans Overseas, which encourage voters to register and vote and hold forums and debates in the months leading up to elections.
Measuring their effectiveness can be difficult since “no one knows” precisely how many Americans in Israel actually vote and for whom. There are no reliable polls and states do not track absentee ballots by country.
Enthusiasm is important when it comes to mobilizing voters overseas. The process isn’t as simple as showing up to the polls. The Republican and Democratic groups - along with the U.S. embassy - must provide state-by-state instructions and motivate voters to request their absentee ballots, fill them out, and send them back while meeting their respective deadlines.
Unlike domestic voting, overseas voters have to be motivated well in advance and the parties can’t rely on last-minute anxieties to bring them to the polls.
“To have Congress in the hands of a left-wing party is bad for Americans and bad for American foreign policy,” Zell said. “The Republican party needs to hold Congress and win the White House in order to undo the damage of the past eight years.”