In the early stages of the US presidential election marathon, few groups were more outspoken in their opposition to Donald Trump than Republican voters in Israel.
The two co-chairmen of the Israeli chapter of Republicans Overseas, Marc Zell and Kory Bardash, supported Marco Rubio during the GOP primaries and criticised Trump on a regular basis. Zell described him a “dangerous” man who was “disgracing himself about 9-11” while Bardash said Trump’s stance on Muslims was “diametrically opposed to everything America stands for.”
Yet following Trump’s emergence from the primaries as the only man capable of stopping Hillary Clinton, it seems Israel’s Republicans have reconciled themselves with the flaxen-haired billionaire, viewing him as the lesser of two evils. Zell, Bardash and their fellow chapter members are actively campaigning for the Donald, brandishing banners and handing out pro-Trump lapel pins left, right and centre.
Now Republicans Overseas are leading what they describe as the most advanced electoral campaign ever seen for a US election in Israel. The campaign is being run from a series of offices across Israel, targeting first, second and third-generation Americans who are entitled to vote in their mother country, many of them hailing from swing states such as Florida.
This week the group opened its fifth, and surely most controversial office. It is situated in the West Bank, more specifically in the Jewish settlement of Karnei Shomron, a town which was hit by a suicide bombing in 2002 and this year witnessed a Jewish man attack a Palestinian car with an axe. Until recently, the surrounding area was also home to an old minefield – perhaps a fitting visual metaphor.
Some might suggest that Trump’s Israel campaign surpasses even its US counterpart for provocative chutzpah. Yet Tzvika Brot, the West Bank campaign manager, is quick to play down the significance of the new office.
“It’s not our main mission,” he tells talkRADIO, “it’s the fifth office we are opening in Israel. It’s not the main story, although a large part of the international media are interested. It’s a small part of our strategic plan.”
Brot is one of a number of seasoned specialists parachuted in by Zell and Bardash to head up the Trump campaign. He himself is a former political advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu and he says several staffers have also worked for the Israeli prime minister, as well as senior politicians Ehud Barak and Naftali Bennett, the latter a leading right-wing firebrand famous for his volcanic rhetoric and hawkish view on the Palestinians.
Brot estimates there are 300,000 Americans eligible to vote in Israel [although other sources put the figure around 200,000] and suggests “the vast majority are learning to the Republican party.” Polls suggest Israelis are roughly evenly split on the US election, yet Brot claims “we know” that 85% of those registered to vote will cast their ballot for the Republicans.
Brot and the majority of his colleagues are born-and-raised Israelis, and have been selected for their Hebrew, rather than English, communication skills. He says the aim is to entice the younger voters, the ones who have grown up in Israel. Accordingly, the campaign focuses only on issues affecting the Jewish state. Brot assures me that “we don’t get into the Mexico issue” the tinderbox of Trump’s campaign, because that’s for Americans and Mexicans to sort out.
Yet, by opening an office in the West Bank, on behalf of a man who has promised to bar foreign Muslims from entering his country, the Trump campaigners have created a powderkeg of their own. A seasoned political operator like Brot must see the potential flashpoints, given the large Palestinian population in the surrounding area, and the potential repercussions for the man they are trying to push towards the White House.
Yet Brot shows no sign of doubt. “We will get to any American voters who ask us for help, and about 20% of the American voters are settlers,” he says. “This [the West Bank office] isn't a symbol of any kind. It's just a place that American voters can register.”
Marc Zell (second left) and other Trump campaigners are seen in Israel. The slogan reads 'Trump, also in Israel's interest' (Getty)
Even though a quick search reveals a Palestinian village, Kafr Laqif, less than two miles from Karnei Shomron, Brot insists this is very much Israeli territory, and won’t impinge on Palestinians. “If you were to drive from Tel Aviv to Karnei Shonron, you wouldn't encounter any Palestinian territory,” he tells me.
"It's very important that people not confused to think that we are campaigning in the Palestinian areas. We don't. We are campaigning only in the Israeli towns, this is our mandate. What's that got to do with the Palestinians?"
In any case, the widespread criticism of settlers and their interaction with the Palestinians is overplayed, Brot says. Groups as august as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations may have raised serious concerns on the issue, but he is adamant we are being hoodwinked.
“The vast majority of the Israelis there get on with the Palestinians, they give them jobs, and socialise with them. The settler image is a myth, created by the far left-wing media. You can find extremists everywhere, but this is not the mainstream.
“Saying that all settlers are extremists its like saying that everyone in London is like Jack the Ripper. It [the militant settler population] is a slight minority.”
The PR war
I ask what Donald Trump does for Israel’s image. The country may have won the military war in Gaza in 2014 but in PR terms it was crushed. Two years on from that campaign and its litany of blood-spattered images, criticism of the country has yet to be staunched.
Surely a vote for Trump, even if it is delivered by a small fraction of the population, will only exacerbate Israel’s image problem?
“Is campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn bad for the UK’s image?” Brot retorts. “In that case I guess so, but the campaign for Trump is not an Israeli issue. It's a campaign that's aimed at Americans in Israel, [and] the last eight years have been horrible by their view. Barack Obama wanted to do good but he didn't understand, until today, the Middle East conflict. We saw it not just in Israel but in the Arab Spring, the way he treated President Mubarak in Egypt.
“Most of the media don't like Trump, but the people do. There's a saying ‘you can replace the people’ but usually it doesn't work. If large numbers of Americas are going to vote for him you have to be very arrogant to say they don't know what's best for them.
“A lot of people don't like Labour or the Conservatives, some like Brexit and some not. But when the people choose their own candidate, the rest of the world has to respect that.”
Yet, if the US presidential campaign has taught us anything so far, it is that the rest of the world doesn’t respect the Republicans’ choice of candidate, and neither do vast swathes of his own people. Trump’s ability to reach the White House may depend on his ability to win over the cynics and turn around the PR campaign.
One wonders whether Brot and his fellow Israeli campaigners, who so recently witnessed a disastrous PR war in their own country, are really going to help him achieve this.