Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Israeli annexed east Jerusalem Jewish settlement of Gilo on Oct. 23. / Getty Images
JERUSALEM â?? Few Israelis stayed up to watch the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, which aired live at 3 a.m. But it was all the talk in the morning.
"It was clear that each candidate was seeking to outdo the other in stressing pro-Israel credentials," to woo Jewish voters, wrote Haviv Rettig Gur, Washington correspondent for the Times of Israel.
Gur estimated that President Obama, who declined to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly this month, said the word "Israel" 22 times.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney criticized Obama, saying the president wants "to put 'daylight' between the United States and Israel" as he sought to show that he would be a better friend to Israel.
But lest Israelis believe that American foreign policy revolves around them, Gur emphasized that Americans are interested in the Middle East "only insofar as it has soldiers engaged in the region and hopes to prevent the next terror attack on American soil."
That means Israelis are watching U.S. political developments "very closely," said Efraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.
"I think people understand that the elections are very important because America is our closest ally," Inbar said. "Much of the world will be affected by whether America projects an image of strength, or not. There is also an element of suspense when an election is this close."
Israeli government officials made no comments that could be construed as meddling in internal U.S. affairs. The major Hebrew dailies carried detailed analyses from their Washington-based correspondents and opinion-makers, much of it negative against Obama.
Ruthie Blum, author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the "Arab Spring," wrote in Israel Hayom that Romney cast a light on Obama's past failures to stand up to Iran's leadership.
"Listening to the 'appeasement king of the West' assert that he laid down the law to the mullahs from the get-go, that his sanctions have been working, and that he will never allow Tehran to proceed toward completing the bomb, one might conceivably be lulled into forgetting what he has been up to," she said.
Chemi Shalev of Haaretz newspaper said Romney brought expedient political reconfiguration "to new and dizzying heights."
"Two weeks before the elections, it now turns out that Romney is actually a lovey-dovey peace on earth kind of candidate who agrees with President Barack Obama on just about everything," he said.
Probably no one in Israel is watching the U.S. elections more closely than the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Americans living there. At least 50,000 of them have registered to vote, election officials say.
Though a large percentage come from New York, many others come from battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Among them are aid workers, volunteers, students attending school here and Americans in the Palestinian territories.
During a visit to Israel earlier this year to woo American expat voters, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who worked for President George W. Bush, quipped that the trip was "like traveling to Dayton, Ohio, or Fort Lauderdale, Fla."
Josh Hasten, a conservative American-Israeli talk radio host originally from Indiana and now based in Israel, said he watched Monday night's debate with great interest.
Although Obama repeatedly referred to Israel as a staunch U.S. ally, Hasten observed, "Gov. Romney hit the nail on the head questioning the president's true feelings towards the Jewish state, by pointing out that Obama visited many Middle Eastern countries throughout his term, but not once did he make a stop in Jerusalem."
Though he didn't follow the debate, Shaul Adi, a native Israeli and wedding hall owner in Jerusalem, agreed that the president missed an opportunity to visit Israel.
"Israel needs an American president that likes Israel," Adi said, as he was hanging out with friends at a local men's club card game. "Obama doesn't seem to be that man."
Moshe Levy, a Jerusalem municipal worker also unwinding at the men's club, said he supports Obama.
"He has street smarts, and he likes Israel. I honestly believe he will have Israel's back if there's a war," Levy said.
The Palestinian government was not pleased with either candidates, who said made only glancing references to the Palestinians. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said without a resumption of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, "there will be no success for American policy in the Middle East."
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