Florida voters in Israel look on in amazement

As their absentee ballots float through the airmail ether, American Jews abroad are thrilled at how significant their votes might be.

Published November 13, 2000 7:00PM (EST)

Debra Inbar, a resident of Israel's coastal city of Haifa, had never voted in a U.S. election until this November when she punched out and mailed an absentee ballot. She is one of Israel's roughly 3,000 Florida voters, and they might hold the key to deciding who will be America's next president.

"Who knew that my vote would be so important?" giddily asks Inbar, a 42-year-old executive secretary in a high-tech firm.

In the Bush-Gore tug of war over Florida, much is being made of absentee ballots mailed from Israel, since more than 80 percent of American voters who live in Israel reliably root for the Democratic candidate.

"We're past excited. We're stunned. We've been working so hard for the past 20 years and we feel we've just hit the jackpot," says Bryna Franklin, a volunteer in the Israel chapter of Democrats Abroad. "The votes coming out of here could determine the gap between Bush and Gore."

But like many of the questions hanging over the Florida count, the question of whether late absentee ballots can tip the balance in favor of Gore is still unanswered. Who knows how many absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 7, floating in the airmail ether, will crop up before Nov. 17?

The number of Floridians who voted from Israel is also in doubt. The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel says there are about 4,000 registered voters here from Florida. Eliyahu Weinstein, the country chairman of Republicans Abroad, believes the number is closer to 2,000. This year the requests for absentee ballots were at a record high as the race whipped up the mostly Democratic American Jews who live in Israel. But there is no way of knowing how many of the requested ballots were actually mailed.

Weinstein also points out that Florida sends out 30,000 absentee ballots around the world and that most of these go to servicemen and corporate transfers who tend to vote Republican. Israel's staunchly Democratic votes could be drowned in a sea of Republican sentiment.

And then there's the Palm Beach County factor.

Inbar, who mailed her vote to West Palm Beach, was as confused as resident voters by the county's peculiar butterfly ballot. "It wasn't user friendly. The holes were very close together. I really had to concentrate and go over the numbers," she says.

To make matters worse, Inbar received two ballots in separate envelopes, one yellow, the other bright pink. She went for the yellow and discarded the pink. "I thought one vote would be enough," says Inbar, who now questions whether she made the right choice. She doesn't suspect fraud. "I think it's a mix-up from West Palm Beach."

People in Israel are watching the Florida contest with both excitement and nervous wonder. "It's beyond understanding that a country like America should have such a foul-up. It's not a banana republic," complains Johanna Kellner, a 76-year-old housewife living in Jerusalem. As for the misplaced ballot boxes, she says, "I can't believe it! I wonder whether it has anything to do with Jeb Bush being governor of Florida."

At the same time, she doesn't dismiss the election saga as just another entertaining piece of foreign news. Kellner has voted in every U.S. presidential election since she left Miami in 1969 because she feels that America and Israel are exceptionally close. "America is one of our few friends in the world," she says.

Preserving America's special relationship with the Jewish state has always been one of the core issues motivating Israel's approximately 40,000 American voters (mostly Jews from New York, California, Illinois and Florida) to bother with voting long-distance. This year, Joe Lieberman added spice to the drama as the first Orthodox Jew to run for vice president.

Franklin, the Democrats Abroad volunteer, believes the number of American voters in Israel may have swelled to "50,000 or 60,000 voters," even though Lieberman's presence on the Democratic ticket wasn't necessarily always perceived as favorable.

Inbar says she was "inspired [to vote] by Lieberman running as vice president. I thought it was a very brave move by Gore to choose Lieberman in spite of the damage he could have caused his candidacy." Kellner, on the contrary, voted for Gore despite his Jewish sidekick. "I'm sure he's a fine and observant fellow, but when Jews are in high places they tend to bend over backward to show that they're evenhanded, and Jews end up getting the short end of the stick."

Lieberman, who once ardently supported the idea of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- thereby recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's legitimate capital and rejecting Palestinian claims to half the city -- has already toned down his discourse. "Now he's saying he's not sure it's the right time for it," points out Franklin.

Lieberman or no Lieberman, it was almost inevitable that Gore would win the day in Israel. In a country that depends heavily on American empathy, money and leadership, Americans here voted above all on the basis of the two presidential candidates' interest in foreign policy. "Bush has no knowledge of foreign relations," says Inbar. "I see how important having a good strong American president is for Israel. Americans in America don't realize how important a good American president is for the whole world. It could be a matter of life and death, literally.

"We need someone to keep [the Middle East] region from exploding," Inbar continues. "Just look in recent weeks at how Clinton has tried to keep a lid on the events." Inbar, who is a fan of President Clinton and a supporter of the peace process, hopes Gore will continue Clinton's course of action.

Kellner, by contrast, holds no great esteem for Clinton. "He focused on the peace prize and his view was flawed from the beginning. [Yasser] Arafat has shown that he is not interested in peace, he is only interested in destroying us. It's sad that within our lifetime, we had Hitler -- and now to be confronted with this ... The intifada, Muslims against us everywhere, the burning of synagogues." That said, Kellner doesn't see a compelling alternative in Gore's rival. "Bush has no understanding of what's going on in Israel."

That Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, made a fortune from Arab oil is also seen as a liability.

"Gore is the lesser of two evils. We need leadership in the world," says Kellner. Like many American residents in Israel, Kellner and Inbar have dual citizenship and see these elections through the prism of Israeli realities. At a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is perceived as faltering and weak in the face of Palestinian aggression, Israelis feel a particularly strong need for a reliable helmsman in the United States. "We need leaders," sighs Kellner. "We need a Moses to come out of the desert."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush Joe Lieberman Middle East