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Is Israel 'Swing State' That Could Tip U.S. Election?

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  • Is Israel 'Swing State' That Could Tip U.S. Election?

    By Matt Spetalnick

    DEIR DIBWAN, West Bank (Reuters) - In this hillside village known as the "little America" of the West Bank, businessman Abu Mohammed voted for George W. Bush in the last U.S. election but vows not to make the same mistake twice.

    On the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, Jerusalem marketing manager Stuart Schnee, a lifelong Jewish Democrat who has never crossed party lines, plans to cast his ballot in November to keep Bush in the White House.

    With little in common but their U.S. passports, Israeli-Americans and Palestinian-Americans living overseas could help tip the balance if the 2004 presidential election comes down to the wire as it did four years ago.

    Bush's victory over Democrat Al Gore (news - web sites) in Florida's decisive recount was by a margin of 537 votes, only after thousands of absentee ballots were tallied from Floridians abroad.

    This time, American expatriates -- estimated to number between five million and 10 million -- are being courted like never before by Democrats and Republicans.

    Israel, sometimes referred to as the "51st state" for its embrace of all things American, has become a key battleground.

    It is home to an estimated 250,000 U.S. citizens, America's fifth-largest community abroad, many hailing from swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

    "The lesson of the last election is you can't take a single absentee ballot for granted," said Kory Bardash, head of Republicans Abroad in Israel.


    Neither party is taking any chances. The Republicans sent California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (news - web sites) to woo Americans in the Jewish state. Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry (news - web sites) also sent an emissary -- his brother Cameron, a Jewish convert.

    The Republicans have signed up dozens of campaign volunteers and are preparing a pro-Bush advertising blitz in Israel's English-language newspapers, but they face steep odds.

    Israeli-Americans, like their Jewish brethren back home, have a long tradition of voting heavily Democratic. Polls show 75 percent of Jews in the United States back Kerry.

    But Republicans in Israel hope to win crossover votes by arguing that a Kerry victory could lead to a shift away from the Middle East policies of the Bush presidency, seen as more staunchly pro-Israel than any other White House in decades.

    It is a message that resonates among growing numbers of Israeli-Americans after four years of bloody conflict marked by Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military offensives.

    Many say their choice will be guided more by whether they think Bush or Kerry will best serve Israel's interests than by the candidates' stand on taxes and other domestic issues.

    Schnee was born in New Jersey with what he calls a "genetic predisposition" to vote Democratic, as his family has for generations. But after a decade living in Israel, he now plans to vote Republican for the first time.

    "I disagree with Bush on many things ... but he is the best man to lead the war on terror and safeguard Israel's security," Schnee, 40, said on the way to report for army reserve duty.

    The Republican campaign is also targeting Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population, seen as a natural constituency for Bush's conservative views.

    Many will vote for the first time after leading rabbis told their U.S.-born followers it was their religious duty.

    American-born Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (news - web sites) -- territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war -- are also expected to stick with Bush.

    Though they were astonished at Bush's endorsement of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites)'s plan to uproot Gaza settlements, they fear a Democratic administration will press Israel to give up even more of the land they see as theirs by biblical birthright.

    David Froehlich, former head of Democrats Abroad in Israel, accuses Republicans of overstating Bush's appeal and distorting Kerry's record of staunch support for the Jewish state.

    Froehlich, who also serves as local U.S. voter coordinator, says registration for absentee ballots is up 20 percent this year and Bush is sure to do better in Israel than last time when he won only one fifth of the 20,000 to 25,000 votes cast.

    But he predicts a strong majority of Israeli-Americans will remain loyal to their Democratic roots.


    Whatever votes the Democrats lose in Israel could be offset by gains among the estimated 40,000-strong Palestinian-American communities of the West Bank and Gaza. Traditionally conservative, they and their fellow Arab-Americans voted mostly for Bush in 2000 but are now ready to abandon him in droves.

    Anti-Bush sentiment has taken root in Deir Dibwan, where half of the village's 10,000 inhabitants hold U.S. passports and local restaurants cater to a taste for hamburgers and pizza.

    Palestinians from Deir Dibwan have a long tradition of emigrating to the United States, where some have earned their fortunes before returning to build luxury villas atop the rocky hills.

    Many are now moving back to America, embittered by what they see as Bush administration complicity in an Israeli military crackdown that has crippled the Palestinian economy.

    Palestinian-Americans are also furious at Bush for agreeing Israel should be allowed to retain large swathes of the West Bank and bar the return of refugees under any future peace deal.

    While harboring few illusions that a Democratic White House would significantly alter Middle East policy, some are holding out hope that Kerry would take a more even-handed approach.

    "I voted for Bush and he betrayed us," said Mohammed, 30, a California-registered voter. "This time I'm going for Kerry. If that doesn't bring us justice, it'll be Ralph Nader (news - web sites) in 2008."