Let me just state the obvious: After a week in Israel, I am no expert on the Jewish state or its politics.
That said, though, I did learn one interesting fact during my recent trip to the Middle East: Israel doesn’t have absentee voting.
What does that mean? Basically, except for deployed military personnel and diplomats, voting must be done in person. In other words, the people who actually live in Israel will determine who wins in Tuesday’s high-stakes election.
So while American Jews have lots of opinions, they’re not likely to have much of an impact on who is elected (or re-elected) prime minister.
In case you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the opening of a recent Associated Press story:
NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot for Israel’s national election, yet he’s a dominant factor for many American Jews as they assess the high stakes of Tuesday’s balloting.
At its core, the election is a judgment on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has won the post four times but now faces corruption charges. In his battle for political survival, Netanyahu has aligned closely with Trump — a troubling tactic for the roughly 75% of American Jewish voters who lean Democratic.
“The world has come to understand that Netanyahu is essentially the political twin of Donald Trump,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street. “Unlike his previous elections, there is a much deeper antagonism toward Netanyahu because of that close affiliation between him and Trump and the Republican Party.”
Netanyahu featured Trump in a recent campaign video, while Trump has made a series of policy moves viewed as strengthening Netanyahu in the eyes of Israeli voters, including relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and officially recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
Although this AP story doesn’t really reflect it, Trump is generally popular among Israeli Jews — just as popular there as he is unpopular among American Jews. It’s fascinating, actually, and why the New York Times recently described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”
Part of the issue is the divide between religious Jews and secular Jews. As I understand it, there’s a higher proportion of religious Jews in Israel than in the U.S. At the same time, the issue is extremely complicated, and Israel itself is facing a variety of societal questions that often pit its religious population against its more secular elements.
The AP story incorporates some of the complexity on the U.S. side:
Though it leans Democratic overall, the American Jewish community — numbering 5.5 million to 6 million — is not monolithic. Most older Jews remain supportive of Israel’s current Middle East policies, as does the roughly 10% of the Jewish population that is Orthodox. Jewish billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has been a staunch financial supporter of Trump and the GOP.
Bottom line: The big picture cannot be fairly assessed simply by quoting American Jews.
It should be obvious, but what happens in Israel is much bigger than the U.S. or its influence.