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Jewish Journal

Israelis keep a close eye on U.S. elections

by Dina Kraft

January 17, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Itzik Nir works at his Tel Aviv juice stand. Photo by Dina Kraft/JTA

Itzik Nir works at his Tel Aviv juice stand. Photo by Dina Kraft/JTA

Hillary Clinton is the favorite U.S. presidential candidate at Itzik Nir's tiny juice stand, a veritable neighborhood listening post where opinions pile up as quickly as the signature orange-banana-passion fruit blends are served.

Customers giggle trying to pronounce Mike Huckabee's name and see Barack Obama as an unknown. They'd rather stick to Clinton, who they see as a sure thing for Israel, Nir said.

"We are so closely influenced by what happens in the United States, so people think it's in their own self-interest to support Hillary, assuming she will do more for Israel," he said.

With a mix of concern for their future and amusement at the marching bands and baby-kissing style of U.S. electoral politics, Israelis are tuning in to see who might be the next U.S. president.

"Of course we are all following the elections: This is going to be our president, too," said actor Michael Koresh, speaking only slightly tongue in cheek. He, too, is rooting for Clinton.

Israeli media had been giving top billing to stories about the U.S. campaign until President Bush arrived in the country Wednesday and the focus shifted to the current American president.

In the lead-up to the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Israeli TV reporters breathlessly reported on the suspense and twists of the campaigns in live reports from the primaries' battle grounds.

Just like American reporters, they also speculate on the effect of Clinton's tears, McCain's comeback and Obama's charisma, and they salivate at the signs of a real race.

Israeli reporters also betray some amusement at the festive style of the campaigns, with their requisite balloons, cheerleaders and apple-pie-style applauding crowds.

"Listen to the crowd. Hear their cheers!" one Channel 10 reporter shouted over the din this week at Clinton's campaign headquarters in New Hampshire.

Israeli media are covering the Republican candidates less closely than the Democrats. One reporter even had to be prompted by his anchor in Israel to discuss the subject.

"And there are, after all, Republicans. What about them?" the anchor asked.

Danny Horvitz leaves on the TV set in his corner grocery so customers can watch the latest news, including the results from the U.S. primaries.

"People are watching what is going on because this is about our future, too," he said.

Israelis seem relatively unfazed by the prospect of a black man or a woman in the White House for the first time.

"It's more exciting for the Americans than it is for us," Nir said at the juice stand. "We've already had a woman prime minister."

Robert Grosz and his wife, Eden, have been arguing about Obama's electability. She says Obama has momentum, but he thinks America is not yet ready for a black president. He's backing Clinton.

Clinton's famous husband seems to be her primary advantage in a country that fondly recalls Bill Clinton as a close friend with not only a political but also an emotional attachment to Israel. When Bill Clinton left the presidency in 2000, Israeli polls showed an overwhelming majority would vote for him to lead Israel if only they had the chance.

"I like Clinton because she's the next closest thing to her husband," Robert Grosz said.

Representatives of both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad in Israel said they have seen a surge of interest in the elections by Israelis and American Israelis.

Both groups have been flooded by requests by U.S. citizens for information about voting in the primaries -- something that did not happen in the same numbers during the last election, they said.

Israelis are catching election fever, said Kory Bardsash, the chair of Republicans Abroad in Israel.

"They are beginning to get wind of it. There is lots of news on Clinton and 'Who is this Obama guy?' and 'Who is the best person?' " he said. "I think they are beginning to recognize something is going on here."

Whoever wins the general election in November, the Israelis interviewed did not seem too concerned that the next president would be anything but pro-Israel.

Shmuel Rosner, Ha'aretz's U.S. correspondent reporting from New Hampshire, wrote in his blog that the U.S. elections and the changes it might bring are "a strange riddle for the Israeli decision-maker."

He said the mix of familiar faces like Clinton and Rudy Giuliani and lesser-known quantities like Obama and Huckabee makes the election stage a bewildering place.

"The winds of sweeping change raise some questions: What will the approach of the elected officials be toward Iran? How will they want to advance the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?" Rosner wrote.

Grosz said he and his wife find the American campaign style both hokey and a waste of money.

But Grosz said he does wish Israel would take one lesson from America's political system of representation: "I wish I could have a senator -- someone I could speak to and feel represented by," he lamented. "There is lots to learn from Americans."

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