Jerusalem – “Make America Great Again” hats and blue Trump-Pence shirts were easily spotted. American flags waved in the wind. Chants of “Lock her up” echoed outside, a mainstay of Donald Trump’s speeches aimed at his rival Hillary Clinton.
But the Jewish head coverings, Hebrew conversations and Israeli flags gave this rally in support of the Republican presidential candidate a decidedly different flavour than the ones held in the US.
About 250 people gathered on Wednesday for a pro-Trump pep rally that overlooked the historic Old City walls, a symbolic location underlining the event speakers’ main message: Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital, and a President Trump would depart from long-held US policy and recognise that fact.
Speakers repeatedly denounced the recent UNESCO vote to condemn Israeli measures that hinder Muslim access to the al-Aqsa compound. Israelis were particularly incensed that the resolution did not explicitly note the Jewish connection to the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
The Trump rally, which featured Christian evangelicals, Israeli-American settlers and Trump staffers, was the biggest show of force yet for the pro-Trump campaign in Israel, which is hoping to turn out the Israeli-American vote for the Republican ticket.
Republicans Overseas Israel, the group leading pro-Trump efforts in Israel, has set up outreach offices across Israel and in settlements in the occupied West Bank – a first for a presidential campaign – to drum up support for Trump and Mike Pence, his pick for vice president.
Recent polls, however, suggest that Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton commands the most support among Israelis, though there are no polls of only Israeli-Americans.
While Trump’s earlier statements on Israel raised eyebrows among the pro-Israel community – including a vow to remain “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a refusal to say whether he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – the presidential hopeful has changed his tune.
He has since attracted the support of pro-Israel donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has given $10m to a pro-Trump Super-PAC that is spending money on anti-Clinton television advertisements.
Trump’s statements are now in line with the Republican base on Israel, a change of direction evident in his pre-recorded video statement to the rally.
“My administration will stand side by side with the Jewish people and Israel’s leaders to continue strengthening the bridges that connect not only Jewish Americans and Israelis, but also all Americans and Israelis,” Trump told the crowd, which frequently burst out into “Trump, Trump, Trump!” chants.
“Together, we will stand up to the enemies like Iran, bent on destroying Israel and her people. Together, we will make America and Israel safe again.”
Marc Zell, the chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel and an Israeli-American settler, told Al Jazeera: “It’s important that the world here, and the voters both here in Israel and the United States, hear the strong support that the Republican Party and the candidates have for Jerusalem.”
Republicans Overseas Israel does not have an official relationship with the Trump campaign, but the group does coordinate its messaging with the Republican candidate’s campaign in the US. The group is funded by private donors.
Zell said the video messages from Trump and Pence on Israel at the rally could appeal to Christian evangelicals and pro-Israel Jews in the United States.
The evangelical community, which is strongly supportive of Israel and usually reliable Republican voters, is split over Trump’s candidacy, particularly in light of his remarks bragging about groping and kissing women without their consent.
Zell added that the Israeli-American vote could be particularly important in swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. “If those states come close the votes from here can be highly significant,” he said.
The group iVoteIsrael, a non-partisan organisation that registers American Israelis to vote, estimates there are 200,000 eligible American voters who live in Israel.
That includes 60,000 Americans who live in West Bank settlements, according to Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a lecturer in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Hirschhorn doubts Israeli Americans will have a substantive impact on the outcome of the presidential election. But she said Republican efforts in Israel have symbolic value, and that most West Bank Israeli-American settlers will likely vote for Trump.
Unlike most American Jews, many West Bank settlers vote based on a candidate’s stance on Israel, she said.
“[Israeli-American settlers] can demonstrate that they’re able to collectively mobilise and that they want to have an influence on American politics,” Hirschhorn told Al Jazeera. “They want to ensure that the next American president is going to be favourable to Israel continuing to hold on to the West Bank and expand the settlement enterprise.”
Trump appeals to rally attendees such as Yossi Kransdorf, a 28-year-old Israeli-American who lives in a West Bank settlement and plans to vote. He said he was particularly appreciative of the fact that Republican Overseas Israel has offices in the occupied territories.
“He’s better for Israel,” he said. “[Clinton] doesn’t recognise Jerusalem as the capital. That’s the ABCs [of supporting Israel].”
Israel captured the Arab eastern half of Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed it in 1980. The US, and most other UN member states, do not recognise the annexation and consider Jerusalem’s final status to be a key issue to be resolved in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
David Friedman, Trump’s adviser on Israel who could be the next US ambassador to Israel if Trump wins, underlined his message on Jerusalem by vowing that a Trump administration would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
That is a move strongly supported by many members of Congress, but US presidents have been loath to do so for fear that giving American blessing to Israeli control and occupation of Jerusalem would inflame a volatile situation.
Friedman also added a Trumpian flavour to the rally by indulging in conspiracy theories. He claimed that Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, has “close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood” – and after an audience member shouted out that she is tied to al-Qaeda, repeated that claim on stage. Right-wing Americans have long pushed the theory that Abedin, a Muslim, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but she does not, according to fact-checkers.
But the crowd loved the claims – and Friedman urged the “well-educated crowd”, as he put it, to “give yourselves a round of applause, because you guys really know what you’re talking about.”
|The Trump supporters denounced the recent UNESCO vote to condemn Israeli measures that hinder Muslim access to the al-Aqsa compound [Shaina Shealy/Al Jazeera]|