In the bustling everyman’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, where Jerusalemites of all stripes come to shop — I once heard a shopkeeper point out the judge who put him in prison — the mood on the eve of elections Monday was laced with indecision, indifference and distrust.
The marketplace is torn. Many shoppers and stall owners said that traditionally they have supported the Likud; murals of the party’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin, still adorn some of the walls. But the Likud’s merger with Yisrael Beytenu, many said, altered their allegiances.
Some felt that the party’s spiritual ideals had been diluted by the alliance with the secular Russian immigrant party, both in terms of religion and the connection to the land of Israel. Therefore, they said, they were leaning toward voting for Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party.
Others felt that the invisible hand of capitalism, the cornerstone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic policies, has been fleecing the lower and middle classes for years. That frustration, too, was pushing many potential voters toward Jewish Home, or repelling them from the ballot box altogether.
A surprising number of shoppers and salesmen — this is right-wing/Orthodox Jerusalem, after all — expressed satisfaction with the socioeconomic policies of Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich. But few said they would vote for her.
“I have no problem with Shelly,” said Ben Balili, a salesman at Mifgash Hashuk, a corner newspaper stand at the mouth of the market. “We gave her flowers last week.”
But he won’t give her his vote. “In the house that I come from,” he said, “voting left is just not possible.”
Lowering the volume on a loud Eyal Golan song and placing his early morning cigarette in the ashtray, Balili said he was leaning toward Bennett. I asked if it was because of the Jewish Home’s political plan to annex Area C of the West Bank, some 60% of the territory. “No,” he said, “that’s not really interesting to me.”
Instead, Balili, who carries ultra-Orthodox, Russian, Spanish, Hebrew and English papers, said the issue closest to his heart was the internal rift in Israel. “In the market everyone gets along, but when you come out, that’s when you get the smack in the face,” he said, noting that last Shabbat he was stopped by ultra-Orthodox protesters while driving on Nevi’im Street near the center of town. Jewish Home, the successor to the National Religious Party, could serve as a bridge between Israel’s Jews, he said.
Turning away from the early morning bustle of trucks and into the covered market, I bumped into Ashraf, an Arab citizen from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor who works here for the city as a cleaner. He said that he starts work at six in the morning. He has four children and after 11 years of working for the city he still makes only roughly 5,000 shekels ($1,300) a month. Nonetheless, he will not be voting on Tuesday. “They’re all the same, the politicians,” he said, indicating with his hands that they never stray from the same track. “Change I ask from God, not the ballot box.”
Shimon Ozeri, an Orthodox butcher, was cutting fat and skin off a pile of beef brain. “I work 12 hours a day so that they can go out and waste my money,” he said of politicians. “I don’t want to lend a hand to that circus, but I have to vote.” Traditionally he has supported Likud. This year, a mixture of general contempt and specific concern about the new merger has left him undecided.
“Financially, the Likud got confused,” chimed in Yocheved Yoldus, a nearby shopper.
A retiree, she said she had voted Likud her entire adult life. “This time, I’m 95 percent sure I’m voting Jewish Home. Maybe my hand will shake near the ballot box,” she allowed, “but I don’t think so.”
Down the hill, at Falafel Mula, Adina Amiga fed the garlic, chickpea, cilantro and pepper mix into the grinder to make the day’s falafel. “Likud is the base,” she said, “but I think Bennett is more real than Netanyahu.”
Like many traditional Likud voters she expressed a longing for Menachem Begin, saying there would never be anyone who had his unique combination of strength and integrity. “Shelly is real, too,” she said of the Labor leader. “She’s not just in it for a seat near the table. She already had a seat,” Amiga said of the former journalist. “But I don’t trust her on the political and security issues.”
In the past, members of her family have also voted for the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. But convicted felons, she said of past and future MK Aryeh Deri, even if they’ve paid their debt to society, should not serve as the people’s representatives in Knesset. Later Monday evening, she said, she would sit down with the rest of the family and come to a final conclusion.
Rivka Avraham, a dialysis nurse who recently moved to Israel from Brooklyn, New York, was the only person to express outright excitement at the upcoming election. Excitement, but also confusion. There are more than 30 parties, she complained, pushing her shopping cart out of the way of produce deliverymen. Not every party makes it into the parliament. Some parties give their extra votes to other parties. Then after you vote the parties come together and form a coalition. But you never know who will be in the coalition. “If you don’t vote, you have to shut up,” she said, confirming that she would be casting a ballot for someone. “But it is very confusing.”
Avraham suggested that the absorption assistance given to new immigrants include a civics course, not just information on how to open a bank account and choose a health care provider. “What the hell is a coalition government anyway?” she asked.
At the wine shop on Agripas Street, the owners, Ofer and Dana Amedi, were upset about one thing: that the empty “white slips” are not counted. “I want to file a protest vote,” said Dana, “and I want it to count.”
Dana is from a long line of secular Revisionists, she said, and her husband once exclusively voted Likud. But she, for the first time, and Ofer for the fourth time in a row, will not be voting. “I was Likud all my life,” Ofer said, “but the middle class is just being wiped away.”
As an example he offered the constant rise in taxes on cigarettes, as opposed to imported cigars. “They raised the price of cigarettes five or six times while they only raised cigars once,” he said. “Why?”
Over at Yas and Son’s legumes and grains stand, Roni Yas, the son, a veteran of the Sultan Yacoub battle in the 1982 Lebanon War, proclaimed himself “a strange bird here in the market. I am a man of the [defunct] Ahdut Ha’Avoda [Union of Labor Party]. A follower of Yigal Allon.”
Only a strong leader like Allon (the former Palmach commander, IDF general, and Labor leader who died in 1980), a clear-eyed Labor hawk, can make peace, he said. And for this reason he had his doubts about Yachimovich.
But before revealing his final decision, and while only intermittently helping the shoppers in line as he spoke, Yas checked off the deficiencies in the other parties: Shas’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, is someone he likes and has known ever since he was a child who worked in the market, but the party, he said, was corrupt, divisive and “full of criminals.” Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, he contended, was “as crooked as they come.” Moreover, he said he was sure that Liberman, whom he deemed “not Jewish and a KGB agent for sure,” would take over the Likud Party within four years. This left him with Bennett and Shelly, he said, and Yachimovich “is the lesser of the two evils.”
“That’s why you should vote for [Shaul] Mofaz,” said his aunt, Mor Alakov, who happened to be waiting in line. “He’s Sephardic, he’s Jewish, he’s honest and everything he ever did in his life he did with force,” she said of the former IDF chief of the General Staff and current head of the Kadima Party.
Ever since Ariel Sharon left Likud and formed Kadima, she said, she voted for the dwindling centrist party. “Even now, I still light candles for Arik Sharon,” she added.
Heading down the hill and out of the market, I stopped at Haofeh, a hole in the wall bakery with two stone ovens that make the flat pita that Jerusalemites call eish tanur. Zion Cohen, who works here, is a bit of a comedian. Although he wears a big Bukharan kippa, I once heard him tell a man who said he looked familiar that he probably recognized him from the gay pride parade, “which I lead every year.”
Cohen looks to be in his sixties but said only that he has been working at the bakery for “18,000 years.” He, too, usually votes Likud, but was not feeling enthusiastic this year. “If Betar wins tonight,” he said of the Jerusalem soccer team most affiliated with the Likud and its upcoming match against arch rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv, “I’ll vote Bibi. If they lose, I’m not voting.”