Rehovot, a city 25 kilometers south of Tel Aviv with a population of 140,000, has been called “the Ohio of Israel.”
Like the Buckeye State, which for years was seen as a barometer of national elections in the US writ small, Rehovot plays the same role in Israel, with voting results coming in similar to those of the country as a whole for the past decade.
During a walk around Rehovot on Tuesday morning, The Times of Israel encountered voters for almost every political party, excluding the Arab ones, with a large number of friendly locals happy to engage in political conversations.
At Cafe Pausa on Herzl Street, the city’s main drag, Nissim, Chaim and Moshe, three retired men in their late 60s, arrived for their morning coffee and “parliament” — the Israeli term for an informal group of acquaintances who sit in cafes and engage in freewheeling discussion of current events.
All three men said they planned to vote for Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White Party. “Bibi needs to go home,” said Nissim, formerly a police officer from the 433 anti-fraud police unit in nearby Lod, using the nickname for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He’s corrupt.”
Asked if there were additional corruption cases that the public doesn’t know about, Nissim shrugged. “He knows a lot of things but he can’t speak about it,” Chaim joked.
Added Moshe, “Every Israeli leader has gotten rich. I think that’s okay, up to a point. But Bibi has gone too far. He’s also enriching his cronies. And he does nothing for the rest of us, not for pensioners, not for the elderly, not for the disabled.”
Nearby, three elderly men sitting on the sidewalk outside a small shop said they were all voting for Netanyahu’s Likud party.
“Gantz will sit in a government with the Arabs,” said one. “He will let [veteran Arab MK] Ahmad Tibi be the economy minister.”
“I was actually considering voting for Gantz,” said another. “But he refuses to take a polygraph test. This woman said he pulled down his pants in front of her. Maybe he is a pedophile? If he had agreed to take a polygraph test, I might have voted for him.” This was apparently a reference to a claim in late February by a woman who accused Gantz of exposing himself to her when they were in high school some 40 years ago. A TV report on the incident said no proof or supporting evidence for the allegation had been found; Gantz filed a lawsuit against his accuser.
Ayala Noy, a 50-year-old Blue and White activist standing outside a polling station at the Smilensky School, said she had been an activist for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and joined Blue and White when Lapid teamed up with Gantz.
“Rehovot has a real mix of people. You have religious and secular, young and elderly, people from the Ethiopian community and the Russian community. I really feel like everyone wants change. Everyone is sick of what is going on here.”
When asked to specify, she said, “Well, look at the residents of the area near Gaza. They are sick of the missiles” fired at southern Israel from the Hamas-run Strip.
Asked about their vote, several people at the polling station opted for politely vague answers. “I made an excellent choice,” said one middle-aged man.
But others were happy to specify. An American-accented man with a kippa pushing a stroller said he had voted Labor. A retired couple originally from North America said they were voting Likud. And a family of four Russian speakers said they were split: the mother and father, in their 50s, planned to vote for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, while the man and woman in their 20s with them planned to vote for Blue and White. “It’s time for Bibi to go home,” the young man said cheerfully.
At Cafe de la Paix on Ya’acov Street, a middle-aged man said he had voted for Likud his whole life but now had switched his allegiance to Moshe Feiglin’s rightist, libertarian, pro-cannabis Zehut, one of the surprise successes of the election campaign.
An elegant middle-aged ultra-Orthodox woman in a velvet dress said that she was voting for “Otzma Yehudit” — a radical faction of self-described disciples of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane that is running as part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and pumped her fist in the air.
Outside the Smilensky polling station, Moshe Shemesh, a mild-mannered Likud activist, said he was not feeling optimistic.
“We have some supporters. But I have to admit I feel like Blue and White is taking some of our supporters. I feel like there’s less support than there used to be,” Shemesh said dejectedly. Asked why, Shemesh replied, “I think some people have stopped believing in Likud.”
Personally, he stressed, “I think Likud has done good things. They’re good on security. Well, let’s hope for the best.”
A few blocks away, at the Tachkemoni national religious school, right-wing parties were out in full force.
“They told us to work at this polling station,” said two young women, below voting age, who were staffing a booth for the New Right, the new party of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. “I think the right has more support in this neighborhood.”
Asked which party seems to have the most momentum, both answered Likud. “We can feel it. Everyone we talk to seems to be voting Likud.”
Asked who they would vote for if they were old enough to vote, one said “Labor.” The other answered “Blue and White.”
“I really, really hope they win,” she said, as she handed out another New Right flyer.