Since the Knesset dissolved itself at the end of May, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having failed to muster a majority coalition, the campaign leading up to our September 17 election re-run has been unfolding in two parallel universes.
In the media universe, lead actors play their roles in the great theater of democracy, locking horns in television studios, forging political alliances, leaking items to the media. They sling mud at each other, discuss with ostensible gravitas the meaning of the latest polls, and muse over possibilities and contingencies only to contradict themselves moments later.
In another universe, weary Israelis watch events with a certain bafflement. They understand that this election may shape their fate and their children’s future, but they don’t really comprehend what all those people on the TV and billboards actually want from them.
This could be a symptom of the fact that this is the second electoral campaign this year. The first was held on April 9, but while the Likud Party won a respectable 35 mandates, Netanyahu failed to form a government, and so we were compelled to go through it all again.
This is bad news for Israeli democracy. Many Israelis, regardless of their political affiliation, have lost confidence in the system of government; they don’t appreciate – and sometimes even outright despise – career politicians, and they don’t really believe that those they elect into office will honestly and fairly strive to serve their best interests.
In the months between the 2019 elections, this reporter for Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, has been out and about around the country, in the homes and workplaces of Israelis, exploring what exactly they hold dear as this second national vote looms.
This piece is an amalgamation of a series originally written in Hebrew, in which I went to central Israel’s Bnei Ayish; Kibbutz Nir Am on the Gaza border; Harish, a local council near Haifa; and Jisr az-Zarka, a coastal Arab-Israeli town north of Caesarea, to bring to life cross-sections of Israel’s voters.
History has shown that Israel performs well in emergencies. But the many encounters with Israelis described in this article suggest that between the two electoral campaigns of 2019 — with rockets being fired on Israel’s south by Gaza Strip-based terrorists, anti-tank missile attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian threat emanating from Syria, growing animosity vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and a great deal of internal tension and dissent — trust in Israeli governance has decreasing almost by the minute.
And that is a serious cause for concern for anyone who cares about the country.
The loyalty system in Bnei Ayish
Arie Garella is head of the Bnei Ayish municipality, a small local council in central Israel.
Garella is a Likud member and a second-time mayor – a fact that is glaringly obvious when you drive through town: Garella’s images are plastered everywhere — from billboards lauding his performance as council head with slogans reading, “Leadership. Responsibility. Power. Execution,” to the walls of the municipal building, which are adorned with dozens of photos of him with senior state officials and, of course, the prime minister.
The second elections called for September created a problem for Garella. Bnei Ayish is home to some 7,600 people, the majority of whom are elderly. Forty-eight percent of residents are Russian speakers, making it the community with the highest percentage of former Soviet Union immigrants in Israel.
This was clearly reflected in April’s elections when Yisrael Beytenu received 20% of the community’s votes – a disproportionately high number compared to the roughly 4% it won on average nationwide. The Likud won 40% of the votes, and the remaining 40% voted for various other parties.
Despite being projected to win somewhere between nine and 11 Knesset seats in the upcoming election, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman has positioned himself as the one holding the fate of Israel’s next government in his hands, stating repeatedly that he won’t automatically recommend Netanyahu be tasked with forming a ruling coalition. This has made Liberman — whose refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition after April’s vote doomed the prime minister’s efforts — the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s continued rule.
Garella knows that he doesn’t have much time to change the electoral situation in his town. That’s why he summoned Claudia Glantz, the town’s director of elderly residents’ affairs, who sees to the needs of the community’s 1,900 aging citizens. Glantz is the one who knows them. She meets them on a daily basis and tries to help them to the best of her ability.
“I told her, ‘Claudia – we’re not doing too well,'” Garella told Zman Yisrael. “You need to explain to them that the only one looking out for them, making sure they have everything they need, is me. They have to give something to get something.”
“The Likud won’t look on it kindly… If they keep voting for Yisrael Beytenu, the Likud won’t look out for them. The Welfare Ministry, which is controlled by Likud, won’t look after them,” Garella elaborated.
Asked whether he finds it problematic that the government is only willing to support those who support it, Garella shrugged. “True. But every party will act like this. Even the left,” he claimed.
The pressure to deliver votes wasn’t as palpable ahead of April’s elections, he noted.
Why should I help someone going against me if I can help someone who helped me?
“We didn’t work as hard. We’re not doing as well nowadays, so we have to put in more time. I plan on telling them [elderly Russian voters] that if they don’t vote for the Likud, which looks out for you, I won’t have the influence I need to fight for you. I have to be able to say, ‘The Likud is here because Arie is here,’ and undermine Liberman as much as possible.”
Garella believes that getting the funding Bnei Ayish needs hinges on Likud’s performance in the polls here.
“I have to be able to show results. That gives me leverage. I’ll meet with the minister and say, ‘Sir, how can we show people our appreciation? We deserve it — we made an effort and you can see the results. Do you want to ruin it? He’ll say, ‘Way to go! We’ll give you the funds.'”
Garella agreed that the system is operating on a quid pro quo basis, but said that he doesn’t mind that.
“If I know that you’re working against me, that you’re trying to undermine me, why should I do you any favors? Why should I help someone going against me if I can help someone who helped me? That’s loyalty — there’s nothing you can do about it,” Garella said.
Kibbutz Nir Am: A left-wing stronghold near the Gaza border
Nestled in pastoral views a few dozen miles south of Bnei Ayish, Kibbutz Nir Am and the city of Sderot paint a fascinating illustration of opposing local politics.
The neighboring communities sit across from each other. They share the local geography, suffer through the same rocket sirens, and mark the same peripheral distance from central Israel. Yet time and again, they deliver polar opposite results in the polls.
Sderot is a mainstay of the Likud and 43.53% of the city’s residents voted for Netanyahu’s party in April. Blue and White received just under 9%, Labor failed to reach the 3.25% electoral threshold here, and Meretz barely garnered 1% of the city’s votes.
In stark contrast, Nir Am is one of the left’s last strongholds in the area. Using the term “stronghold” in connection with the battered, bruised and limp Israeli left seems like an oxymoron, but the numbers tell a different story. Over the years, Nir Am has displayed total loyalty to the leftist camp, or more accurately the non-right camp. In the last elections, 54.8% of kibbutz residents voted for Blue and White, 16.8% voted for the Labor party, then under Avi Gabbay, and Meretz won 6.8%; only 8.8% of Nir Am’s residents voted for Likud.
Four years earlier, in the 2015 elections, almost 58% of Nir Am’s residents voted for Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Labor-dominated Zionist Union. Meretz received 12% of the votes – 4% more than Netanyahu’s Likud.
The voter migration to centrist Blue and White in April had something of a prosaic regional reason: Alon Schuster, a resident of neighboring Kibbutz Mefalsim who served as head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council for almost two decades, had joined Blue and White. Schuster is a popular and well-respected figure in these parts and many of Nir Am’s residents supported Blue and White for him.
September’s elections will revisit the issue of loyalty, now that Amir Peretz — a resident of Sderot — is back at the helm of the Labor Party.
The older generation in the kibbutz will likely remain loyal to Peretz, whom they know, respect and trust. For the younger generation — which makes up the majority of Nir Am as it has seen an influx of young couples over recent years — the elections are a toss-up between Labor, the Meretz-dominated Democratic Camp and Blue and White.
Speaking with Zman Yisrael, former kibbutz secretary Avi Kadosh sought to debunk some of the clichés associated with its relationship with Sderot.
“The differences between the two communities have nothing to do with ethnicity,” he said, referring to the prevailing theory that voting patterns in the mostly Mizrahi Sderot and predominantly Ashkenazi Nir Am represent the tensions between the two ethnicities. This historic tension stems from Israel’s earliest days, when Jews arriving at the fledgling state from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa were largely sidelined by the European leaders of the founding Labor Party.
“I’m from Morocco. I was born in Casablanca and came to Nir Am in 1970. I’ve never encountered any racism here. This has nothing to do with racism or ethnicity. Sure, you hear jokes here and there, but that’s all it is, jokes,” said Kadosh.
“This also has nothing to do with the financial situation. This isn’t a story of the rich versus the poor, because Nir Am is far from being a rich kibbutz,” Kadosh continued.
History teacher Kadosh believes, rather, that the substantial difference in voting patterns between Sderot and Nir Am stems from education.
“When you underscore a certain education — one more inclusive, universal and accepting of others — and when you encourage dialogue and encourage the children to get to know each other, they internalize this perception,” said Kadosh. “The fact is, we have people who move here from Sderot and after a while, you can see they become more politically moderate.”
Becoming more politically mellow may also be a by-product of the local lifestyle. If you arrive at Nir-Am in the early morning, you may encounter dozens of people riding electric scooters to the Sderot train station, from where they commute to work in Tel Aviv’s high-tech centers — an hour-long trip in each direction. Other high-tech workers use the Intel shuttle that takes them to the technology giant’s research and development center in Kiryat Gat.
Even Nir-Am’s old mess hall, abandoned for years, has been converted into an incubator where eight tech startups currently operate in a format similar to that of the WeWork shared workspace model.
Incidentally, WeWork founder Adam Neumann grew up in Nir Am.
Surprisingly, Kadosh says that at times, Nir Am’s residents feel marginalized compared to their neighbors in Sderot.
“The kibbutz has suffered hundreds of rocket hits, even before the disengagement,” he said, referring to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “The sad joke we used to tell here is that they [Gaza terrorists] aimed at Nir Am and sometimes missed and hit Sderot. But when Sderot is hit, it gets immediate media attention, with talk of what they [the government] would do if this happened in Tel Aviv.”
“No one cares when Nir Am gets hit. Living here, many times you feel like you’re invisible. Like you don’t exist. And you feel lonely. There’s palpable loneliness here,” he said.
Kadosh has four grown children. They all left the kibbutz, but three of them eventually came back to live here with their families. This was a great source of pride for him, but after the last rocket barrage, one of his daughters decided to leave.
“I was always the example — the one who had three children living in Nir Am with their families,” he said, holding back tears.
“My son, who lives in Tel Aviv, almost convinced his girlfriend to move here, too, but the security situation scared them. And then my daughter, who made a life for her family here, decided to move. And you know what hurts the most? She and her husband, they have options, they can live anywhere because high-tech is a universal language. But they chose to live here, to raise their children here. And now they, who are [politically] moderate, like me, don’t think you can live here anymore, so they’re wandering around like an unwanted minority, like lepers. That’s the worst thing, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one person who is responsible for that,” Kadosh said.
No matter where you are in Israel, any political discussion inevitably touches on Netanyahu.
The prime minister, Kadosh said, has never visited Nir Am.
“He’s never set foot here, nor has he been to any of the other kibbutzim here. No matter how hard we were hit [by rockets]. We don’t vote for him, so we’re invisible to him,” Kadosh said. “For us, that’s the biggest blow — we’re invisible. We feel that the head of this state is a man who is constantly settling scores with the voters and incites them against each other, a man whose rule removes anyone who doesn’t agree with him from the consensus.”
“I hate to say it, but I often feel that I no longer have a place in Israeli society, and that’s because of the prime minister,” he said. “Anyone who disagrees with or challenges him in any way is labeled a radical leftist — an actual enemy.”
“I hear the way people talk about Arabs and about leftists,” Kadosh said of places north of Nir Am’s neighboring town. “I hear the hatred everywhere and it scares me. I can tell you that away from this region, I don’t feel comfortable expressing my political views out loud. I prefer keeping them to myself — just like when I’m in Europe and I make sure not to speak Hebrew out loud. To me, that’s the most terrible thing.”
Take a right at Harish
If the kibbutz movement was once the symbol of the Jewish people’s revival in their ancestral homeland, then Harish, a local council near Haifa, is where Israel had a rude awakening from the romanticized Zionist dream.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Harish has the highest positive immigration rate in Israel, is growing at a dizzying pace and still has more apartments than people and the most real estate agents per capita. In the 2015 Knesset elections, Harish was home to only 604 eligible voters; ahead of April’s elections, that number had soared to 4,542 potential voters (of whom 3,392 cast ballots.)
Harish’s political affiliation might best be described as follows: If Israel veers to the right, Harish veers further to the right.
April’s elections saw the Union of Right-Wing Parties — a faction comprised of the Jewish Home Party, the National Union, and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party — win 14% of the vote in Harish. The New Right, headed by former Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked won 7% of the vote, and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party won 6.7% of the vote. (Neither the New Right nor Zehut, however, passed the 3.25% electoral threshold nationwide, which roughly translates into four Knesset seats.)
The two major parties had a fairly representative showing, with Likud taking 26.60% — the national average — and Blue and White garnering 21%, five points below its national average. Ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas took 10%.
The small right-wing parties have reshuffled the deck ahead of September’s elections: Jewish Home, the National Union, and the New Right joined forces to form Yamina under Shaked’s leadership; pressured by Netanyahu, Feiglin bowed out of the race in exchange for a cabinet seat and a reform of the medical marijuana industry — a key point in Zehut’s platform — and Otzma Yehudit is running independently.
April’s election results indicated that while left-wing parties may be marginalized in most cities across Israel, they practically don’t exist in Harish. Labor won only 3% of the votes here; Meretz, with 1.34% of the votes, barely registered.
Local resident Yossi Ezrahi takes the community’s political fabric for granted. Harish, he explains, is made up of young couples, half of them secular and half national-religious who, like their contemporaries, mostly vote for right-wing parties.
Ezrahi slightly credits himself with the relative success of the New Right in Harish, boasting that he hosted Ayelet Shaked in his home.
“About 50 people arrived and it was wonderful,” Ezrahi said. “I believe in it. I was a member of Likud until Shaked joined the Jewish Home, and then I followed her to the New Right. I’m sure she has something interesting in the works for the upcoming elections.”
Harish, Ezrahi explained to Zman Yisrael, “is a mixed community and as such, we reach out to lobbyists to work on our behalf. As far as I’m concerned, Ayelet Shaked is my lobbyist in the Knesset. If I can communicate with her and I can get her votes in Harish, in exchange she’ll work for us in the Knesset, and then we’re golden.”
The correlation between Harish and Shaked makes sense: They are both young, both of them navigate the nebulous territory between the secular and religious sectors, and both subscribe to a distinctly right-wing ideology. Both also invest a lot of energy in marketing, and their fans are convinced that they are the future of Zionism.
Ezrahi, 30, has a young family and has been living in Harish for three years. He has a plumbing company and also serves as editor and chief correspondent of the local newspaper. He is both a self-appointed critic of Harish and its biggest supporter, listing its many flaws and describing its bright future in the same breath.
“Harish is the future,” he said. “Our main problem is that the state spent billions here on construction and development, but forgot to invest in branding and marketing. We see new buildings being built and parks for children. It’s moving ahead with full force, but it still fails to attract young couples.”
“You have to understand that building a new city is a marathon — a triathlon, even. When you establish a new city you have a vision that embodies a pioneering Zionist spirit,” he said, waxing poetic. “You have to take deep breaths; you learn to cherish the good things wherever they are, even if they’re small. And you fight, and you do what you can, wherever you can.”
Harish is plagued by innumerable problems, and they start at the entrance to the city. Only one narrow road connects Harish to the outside world, and if something happens on it — for example when a truck hauling construction materials and bricks overturned and blocked the road — the city is essentially cut off.
“That’s a planning catastrophe. There should be at least two more roads to Harish, one to the east and one to the west,” said Ezrahi.
The city is also not directly connected to the nearby Highway 6, the major toll road that traverses Israel from north to south. Public transportation is very cumbersome, but as of earlier this year, there is a bus line to Tel Aviv, an accomplishment of which Mayor Yitzhak Keshet is very proud.
But above all looms the religious question: Harish was originally designed as an ultra-Orthodox community. In 2012 the Interior Ministry decided to change its designation to an all-inclusive one, but the zoning and building plans had already been approved, so city infrastructure caters to the needs of Haredi families and features narrow roads and wide sidewalks, suitable for strollers, as well as relatively low-rise buildings, ensuring climbing up to top floors on Shabbat won’t be too strenuous.
In the event, however, not many Haredim have moved to Harish, leaving its secular residents stuck with the ill-suited infrastructure.
“If we aim to have 100,000 residents living here, that’s about 24,000 families. Say each family has two cars — that’s close to 50,000 vehicles. When they planned Harish, they didn’t think there would be 50,000 cars here,” Ezrahi explained.
The planning isn’t the only thing to run out of steam; any effort to change the city’s image is also at a standstill. Many Israelis are still convinced that Harish is an ultra-Orthodox city.
“Harish is a new city that is still looking for its identity,” said Galit Avishay, who heads its efforts to absorb new residents. “But unfortunately what happens in the meantime, is that secular Israelis are afraid to move here because they worry they’ll find themselves living in a Haredi city, and the Haredim are afraid to move here because they hear it’s a completely secular city.”
“We have a 50-50 division between secular and religious residents,” Ezrahi estimated, adding that an ice cream parlor that opened on Shabbat was big news and prompted low-key demonstrations.
“It was very passive, there was no violence or anything,” he stressed. “They just said they were against the store operating on Shabbat. Overall, we live in harmony here.”
The Arabs are not rushing to the polls in Jisr az-Zarka
Sami al-Ali, a resident of Jisr az-Zarka, a coastal Arab-Israeli town north of Caesarea, said he feels hatred all around him.
“We feel it all the time. Everywhere. It’s not like there is someone cursing at you or demonstrating hatred and racism towards you over every step you take, but it happens quite a bit. You feel it on social media and in the workplace. Actually, expressions of racism and incitement are everywhere today,” said al-Ali.
A quick example he gives is when neighboring Caesarea built a wall between the two communities in 2002 and no one raised an alarm.
Jisr az-Zarka “is a village where an atmosphere of frustration and exclusion and a sense of being under siege have been simmering for years,” al-Ali said. “This also created a mental block for people. We’re cut off from all directions — Caesarea to the south, [Kibbutz] Ma’agan Michael to the north, the sea to the west, and the highway to the east.”
“Think about it: In the heart of the country, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, a wall was built between two communities — a wall that symbolizes not only the separation between Jews and Arabs, but also between the rich and the poor,” he said.
“Things have only gotten worse since. So don’t act surprised that the same people who were once called ‘bad seeds’ — those who believe in the superiority of the Jewish race — have now taken over the public discourse and have been legitimized,” he said.
Al-Ali, 38, is a member of the far-left Balad Party and in 2008, he formed the “Popular Committee” in Jisr az-Zarka, a volunteer group trying to look out for the residents’ interests and improve their quality of life.
“We realized that if we didn’t do something we’ll end up in a very, very bad place,” he said.
Al-Ali also tried to run for council head twice but lost. In Jisr az-Zarka, he explained the simple mathematics of tribal politics — the head of the council always comes from the largest family.
When it comes to the general elections, the locality is traditionally one of the places with the lowest voter turnout in Israel, falling below the already low voting average in the Arab sector (estimated at below 50% in April).
April’s elections saw voter turnout in Jisr az-Zarka drop to 21.7%, meaning four out of five eligible voters didn’t bother going to the polls. Understanding why requires diving into the cesspool of alienation where poverty, crime, geographical disconnection, a loss of confidence in the system, and no hope for the future come together.
“We are suffering from tremendous distress here,” al-Ali said. “There are 14,400 people living on 1,566 dunams [387 acres], not all of which are intended for housing. Take away the institutions — the police, schools, city hall, roads — and we’re left with 600 dunams [148 acres], maybe a little more, for housing. That’s very high [urban] density. ”
“The socio-economic situation here is disgraceful, which is why we have crime, violence, drugs. The education [system] here is also very poor. There is a massive negative immigration of young people, who have no reason or way to stay here. They go to Kafr Qara, to Wadi Ara, to the Triangle. Not to Haifa, though, because it’s too expensive and also because they’re looking for a similar way of life,” he said.
But how does all of this translate politically? According to Ali, because of the homogeneous poverty and lack of social divisions, the village has historically mostly been a place for political wheelers and dealers, and voter turnout is very low. “They know that no one gives a damn,” he said.
According to al-Ali, due to its physical dislocation from other Arab population centers, Arab politicians only recently began to pay attention to the village.
“After what happened in 2000, people stopped voting for Jewish parties and started voting for the Arab parties,” he said, referring to the October 2000 riots, in which 12 Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian were killed by Israeli security forces during a series of clashes at the start of what became the Second Intifada.
“Since 2004 you see almost only Arab parties here. In 2013 and 2015 there was an increase in voter turnout, up to 40-something percent — it was a record, and it had to do with both the parties’ work in the village, as well as with the formation of the Joint List,” explained al-Ali, referring to the faction comprising Arab parties Balad, Ra’am and Ta’al, and the Arab-Jewish Hadash Party.
“In 2019 [voter turnout] dropped again because of a number of things, like the fact that the Joint List dissolved and the nation-state law,” he said.
The controversial “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed in mid-2018, enshrined Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people. It drew protests from Druze and Arab minorities, as well as many Jewish Israelis, who said the legislation created official discrimination between Jews and non-Jews.
Ahead of April’s elections, the Joint (Arab) List split into two rival factions, which mustered 10 seats between them (a drop of three on 2015); the four parties again joined forces for September’s elections.
Al-Ali said that there is slightly more political awareness since the parties renewed Joint List — but not much.
People just voted in the elections a few months ago. They’re tired and frustrated, and don’t believe anything will change
“People just voted in the elections a few months ago. They’re tired and frustrated, and [they] don’t believe anything will change,” he said.
But he feels this indifference is a missed opportunity for the Arab community.
“Even if you take out, say, 10% for those who boycott the election for ideological reasons and won’t vote no matter what — you’re still left with hundreds of thousands of votes in the Arab sector. If they’d take the time, visit villages not only during election time, then the Arab parties could reach 17-18 seats. That could bring about real change,” al-Ali said.
But as things stand, he concluded, Jisr az-Zarka’s residents are simply too frustrated to take to the polls. “With all the baggage they’ve accumulated over the years — let’s call it historical injustice — and the negative attitude and image of the community, they say, ‘Why bother?’ And that’s understandable,” al-Ali said.