The Magazine

Where the Jews Vote Republican

One thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that Obama is bad news.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By WILLY STERN
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Then there's Dani Ben-Simon, a longtime lefty columnist at Haaretz, who is leaving journalism for politics. He believes that George W. Bush did Israel a "great disservice" by his unwavering support of the Middle East's only true democracy. Why? Because Bush was too "friendly" towards Israel and didn't push Israelis towards the "objective thinking" that would have helped them realize that they, too, are a superpower and can afford to reach settlements with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Ben-Simon believes that, despite their military superiority, many Israelis suffer from what he terms the "Warsaw ghetto mentality" and fear that their destruction could be imminent.

Such is the thinking of Obama supporters in Israel. There's no Bush hatred. There are oodles of decency and much intellectualism. Nonetheless, many of their fellow Israelis think they are daft.

The leaders of all three of Israel's major political parties--Labor, Kadima, and Likud--prefer McCain but they don't dare say so publicly, reports chain-smoking political consultant Eyal Arad. Why not? Because, explains Arad, they know they might have to deal with Obama for the next four years. "Israelis fear the unknown and Obama represents the unknown," explains Saul Singer, longtime editorial page editor of the Jerusalem Post, now on book leave. Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006, elaborates, "We all know McCain. When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, he called me and said, 'Danny, what's Israel's policy on torture?' We don't have those relationships with Obama, yet."

Expat Americans in Israel are also largely right-leaning. Kory Bardash, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who is now chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, predicts that McCain will get more than 75 percent of the vote among Americans living in Israel. He wants it to have an impact, too. Bardash is specifically targeting absentee voters who are registered back home in the swing states of Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

On my way back from Ramallah to Jerusalem, my driver had to take us through one of the controversial checkpoints that Israel set up to keep suicide bombers and snipers from murdering Israeli citizens. Because of the new security fence, which separates the Jews from their Palestinian neighbors, everybody must pass through one of these checkpoints when moving in or out of the West Bank.

My driver and I were a profiler's nightmare. He was fairly young, male, and Palestinian. We left Ramallah in a Palestinian taxi with Palestinian plates. We stopped outside the city so the driver could buy a small table. (Prices are cheaper for most items in the West Bank than in Israel.) The driver stuffed the table in the car's trunk, which was not opened by the Israeli guards though it could easily have contained a bomb. We waited at the checkpoint for less than a minute before being waved through. So much for the supposed inhumane queues which the anti-Israel media enjoy touting.

And it is not as though security is lax. The fence-and-checkpoint combination has done its job. In 2002, there were 234 terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank, claiming 62 lives. Last year, there were no successful attacks. It's a security success story, despite the way the fence and the checkpoints have been portrayed by some in the Western media. And that contrast helps explain the Israeli preference for McCain.

"As a humanitarian, I am delighted that Obama has become America's first black presidential candidate," says Israel Harel, founder of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. "And if my main concern wasn't Israel's existence, I would vote for Obama. But, because Obama is closer emotionally to the Third World--also the Arab world--I would vote for McCain because that would be a vote for a secure Israel and therefore, a vote for securing the existence of the Jewish people."

When your back is to the wall, sweet-sounding platitudes ring just a little empty.

Willy Stern, a Nashville-based writer, has reported from six continents.