Israeli elections 2019Down south, seeing why diverse Israelis vote the way they do

In Likud bastion Dimona, ‘traitors’ look to siphon votes away from Netanyahu

Blue and White has the town’s former mayor high on its list, but with the current mayor calling for 50% backing for Likud, making inroads may be a desert mirage

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Benny Biton, mayor of Dimona (third from right), poses with fellow Likud activists at the Likud party's campaign headquarters, Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)
Benny Biton, mayor of Dimona (third from right), poses with fellow Likud activists at the Likud party's campaign headquarters, Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

DIMONA — There was a party-like atmosphere at Likud headquarters in the southern Israeli town of Dimona on Monday evening, hours before polls opened for the national elections.

Benny Biton, the effusive Likud mayor of the hardscrabble desert town since 2013, had arrived to shake hands, slap backs and encourage the assembled crowd of activists to get out the vote.

“I want more than 50 percent of the vote tomorrow for Likud!” he urged. “It’s very close. People say [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is going to win, but this is not the time for complacency! Likud has to be the biggest party and the coalition has to include the whole right wing.”

The comments echoed those of the premier, who has raised the alarm in recent days that his party could lose and see Blue and White’s Benny Gantz put in power, in an effort to shock voters into flocking to the polls.

In 2015, Likud won 41 percent of the votes in the city, long seen as a party stronghold. That has not stopped Blue and White and other challengers from attempting to make inroads here and in other development towns, where many of their supporters, former Likud members, are called traitors.

Campaign posters for the Likud Party (right), featuring Dimona mayor Benny Biton with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seen in the Negev city of Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Much of Likud’s support in Dimona is due to demographics.

Situated some 36 kilometers (22 miles) south of Beersheba, in the undulating brown hills of the Negev desert, Dimona was established in 1955 as a development town and to provide housing for workers at the Dead Sea chemical works. Most of those who populated the town were from North Africa, a Mizrahi population that has traditionally voted for Likud and its Herut forebear in strong numbers.

While many Eastern Europeans were also housed in the town, most of them left as soon as they were economically strong enough to do so, and were replaced, eventually, in the 1990s by an influx of new immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine.

The Dead Sea Works. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Outside of the town, employment has traditionally been provided by the Dead Sea Works, the Rotem Industrial Park and the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, with factories and workshops within the municipal boundaries offering mainly low-skilled jobs.

The city’s iconic Kitan textile plant, which opened in 1958 and once employed 2,000 people, closed some seven years ago.

The former Kitan textile factory in Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Today, the factory — which has become a byword for economic failure in Israel’s southern periphery — looks out over what is slated to become a massive complex for housing and commerce.

New apartment buildings are going up alongside the drab tenements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and attractive neighborhoods of single-family homes now line a wooded area in the city’s north, originally planted to shelter residents from sandstorms.

Biton insisted that Netanyahu deserved huge thanks for caring about Dimona and supporting other Negev development towns — even those not headed by Likud party members.

Last year, the city signed an agreement with the Finance Ministry — headed by Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon — to inject NIS 5.5 billion ($1.5 billion) over 10 years to build 30,000 housing units, along with public buildings and infrastructure, with the aim of tripling the city’s population to 120,000 in the next 10 to 15 years.

Some of this growth is supposed to come from the Israeli army. In recent years, the IDF has moved its main training facilities from Herzliya on Israel’s central coast to a location just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Dimona. In terms of housing demand, though, the effects have yet to be felt, according to one city official.

Biton told the activists Monday that Netanyahu assured him privately that he’d decided to designate the Nevatim airbase, a 25-minute drive north of Dimona, as the site for Israel’s third international airport, joining Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv and the recently opened Ramon Airport south of Dimona near Eilat.

“If it’s approved, works will start within two years,” Biton said.

The Ramat David airbase in the Lower Galilee is also being considered as a possible location for the country’s third international airport.

The entrance to the Nevatim Air Force Base in southern Israel on May 12, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

‘Things are not what they seem’

Across the road from the Likud shindig, things were much more subdued at the Blue and White party’s campaign headquarters on Monday.

Hadas Edri, a dyed-in-the-wool Likudnik until he switched in 2013 to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (now part of the Blue and White party), was working quietly on logistics for polling day with a small group of fellow activists.

Hadas Edri (C), head of the Blue and White party’s campaign in the Negev city of Dimona, works out logistics for election day flanked by party activists, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The party hopes that Meir Cohen, a popular former mayor of Dimona, who is number six on the Blue and White party slate, will help bring in support here.

“We’re mostly ex-Likudniks here,” Edri said. “We’re hoping to get more than 12 percent of the vote.”

In the 2015 elections, Yesh Atid won 8.8% of the city’s ballot.

Edri conceded that “this is a Likud stronghold. We are seen as the ‘traitors’…All of my friends ask me why I quit Likud to become a ‘leftist.’ And even if I was one, would that mean I wasn’t a patriot? I fought in Lebanon. I fought and was wounded in Gaza. I do 70 days a year of army reserve duty.”

Why had he changed political course? “Because I was sick of Bibi,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He did nothing for us. The periphery is still the same.”

The north and south of the country — the geographic and economic periphery — is widely seen as disadvantaged in relation to the country’s center.

Meir Cohen (right) appears on a Blue and White party election poster in the Negev city of Dimona, along with Yair Lapid (center) and party leader Benny Gantz, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Hundreds of rockets rained down from Hamas-run Gaza into southern Israel recently before Netanyahu acted, he charged, apparently referring to a succession of escalations of fire from the Strip, and even then the prime minister pressed for a ceasefire. “He’s no hero.”

Government funds were channeled to the religious parties, even to the Bedouin Arabs, before they reached the Negev development towns, he charged. Netanyahu “just laughs at us,” Edri said.

And there was the moral question mark hanging over Netanyahu, whom the attorney general has said intends to indict — pending a hearing — in three separate criminal cases for fraud and breach of trust, and bribery in one of them.

“I have five kids, aged nine to 23, and I try to educate them to be honest — not to steal, not to lie. But what do they see on the news?”

Edri holds Netanyahu responsible for the bitter divisions in Israeli society. “Our daughter comes home from school upset that people call her a leftist because we have Blue and White party posters outside our home.”

He added, “Bibi has done a lot of good, but he’s done more damage.”

‘Only Bibi’

At 3 p.m. Monday, Dimona’s Amal industrial area was dead. The city is one of the few places that still observes the afternoon siesta that has disappeared from much of the rest of the country.

The busiest place was a hardware store, where Ilan, the man behind the counter, explained that voting for Likud was something that one grew up with at home. “You can’t help it,” he said.

Dimona’s Amal industrial zone, deserted during afternoon siesta time, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Gantz was a “leftist,” he charged, backing the claim with the long-running fake news that Gantz’s wife is an active member of the left-wing Machsom Watch, a women’s group which monitors the activities of IDF soldiers manning checkpoints in the West Bank and films alleged human rights abuses.

Earlier this week, the Vocativ media company reported that this fake item had appeared online 4,655 times since the elections were announced in December.

Customer Khalil Ben Israel, an Israeli soldier and member of the Black Hebrews, or African Hebrew Israelites, as they call themselves, agreed that Likud was the only option.

But Uriel Ben Israel, speaking Hebrew with a strong American accent, disagreed. “I’ve been back and forth between Israel and the US so many times that I don’t have citizenship or the vote, ” said Uriel. “But if I did, I’d vote Benny Gantz.”

Black Hebrews from Dimona seen celebrating the giving of the harvest on Shavuot. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Uriel’s compatriots came from Chicago to Israel during the throes of the American civil rights movement. Guided by their late spiritual leader, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (born Ben Carter in Chicago), they believe themselves to be linked to the Jewish people and the lost tribe of Judah.

“I don’t care about Bibi’s private life or his alleged swindling,” Uriel said. “But I think he’s done things that are dangerous for the country. The peace process is at a stalemate and there’s so much building in the West Bank, which isn’t good.”

Turning to Khalil, he asked, “Why do three generals [the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon, all former IDF chiefs of staff] see things so differently from Bibi? Are they stupid?”

DNA tests for Jewishness?

Valery, a tall, muscular immigrant from Donetsk in Ukraine, has lived in Dimona for 27 years and is employed at the Dead Sea Works. He is married to a woman from Belarus and has two children.

Valery, who immigrated to Dimona from Donetsk, Ukraine, 27 years ago. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“The demography here is as follows,” he said. “I’d say 25 per cent from Russia and Ukraine, with some Bucharians, and the rest are Indians and Moroccans. I’m voting for [secular Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor] Liberman. I want transport and shops to be operating on the Sabbath.” (Most shops are currently closed on Saturdays and most public transportation does not run).

Valery said he heard talk on the radio about obliging citizens to undergo DNA tests before marrying to check that they are Jewish, raising an issue of great sensitivity for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom won citizenship through the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jews by the Orthodox rabbinate.

“What are things coming to?” he asked rhetorically.

In one of the upmarket villa areas, Arik, whose grandparents immigrated from India, invited this reporter into his home for a cup of mint tea.

He and his wife Dana, a teaching assistant of Moroccan extraction, moved in just under a year ago. Both were born and bred in Dimona.

Villas in Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

Arik said he would have considered voting for Gantz, but did not trust Lapid.

He plans to vote Likud, just like his seven siblings, despite the fact that under Netanyahu the government had cut National Insurance payments for his mother, who had worked hard as a school cleaner all her life. “We all help her out, ” he said.

Dana said that the criminal allegations against the prime minister were of no interest. “I know that he’s strong and suited to be prime minister and I prefer what I already know. Bibi looks after everything. I just love him,” she said.

One official at the municipality, who closed the door before saying that he would be voting for the Labor party, said sarcastically that Dimona residents “would vote for Likud even it was headed by Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas].”

Referring to the collective memory of discrimination at the hands of the Labor movement during the early years of the state that is deeply etched in the minds of many immigrants from North Africa and their descendants, he said, “I hear intelligent people who are born here and say they will vote Bibi because of what ‘they [the Labor movement] did to my grandparents 70 years ago’. They will knowingly vote against their own interests!

“And I say, I worry about my own kids — not about what they did to my parents, who are already in their graves!”

Jewish settlement and social activism

It was only at the Ayalim student village — home to 30 young people at any one time — that The Times of Israel found any real political discussion during a tour of Dimona.

Half of the students come from outside the city and had gone home to cast their ballots at their local polling stations on Tuesday.

From left: Itzik, Shlomi and Avia of the Ayalim students’ village in Dimona, with canine friend Banoffee, April 8. 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Shlomi, a Dimona native, who is about to start an interior design course after completing his military service in the tank regiment and spending a year in India and Sri Lanka, was dressed in work clothes, helping Itzik, a resident of a West Bank settlement, to lay concrete pathways — part of a project to renovate the 15-year-old village.

Ayalim, named for Ayal and Yael Sorek, who were killed by Palestinian terrorists in 2002 in the West Bank settlement of Karmei Tzur days before the birth of their first son, is a nonprofit venture geared to encouraging young people to appreciate the potential of the places where they live and to contribute to their communities.

“All my friends have already moved to the center of the country,” Shlomi said, “but I’m very connected here. There’s a warm community, a magic. Here, there’s fertile ground for young people to dream, initiate and achieve things.”

Admitting that he is “not the Dimona typecast” — he was already socially active as a high school pupil, helping Yuli Tamir, education minister under Ehud Olmert from 2006 till 2009 — he plans to vote for Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher Party, which is campaigning on a socioeconomic platform and is not expected to pass the electoral threshold.

“I expect that my vote will be wasted, but I think Orly Levy really sees the ‘transparent people’ like the disabled and Holocaust survivors. My mother is recognized as 100 percent disabled and I see how funding cuts have affected her.

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis speaks during a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are many transparent people in Dimona, people for whom the glass ceiling is very low. We need people like Orly Levy to represent the development towns and the periphery. The State of Israel must try to be as fair as possible as a society.”

Itzik, who left Orthodoxy behind and moved to a secular settlement in the West Bank’s Hebron hills, was deliberating between voting for Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party (“They’re the most honest people in politics”) or far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which appears to have attracted a large following among the young, thanks largely to its pledge to legalize pot. “I like his libertarianism, his emphasis on freedoms,” Itzik said.

Avia, who voted Likud in two elections, and whose father is active in the party, said she that while she was right-wing, she would not vote for Netanyahu again.  While she highly admired the Labor Party’s Stav Shaffir for her campaign to make public expenditure more transparent, she said she could not find a party that truly represented her and probably would not vote.

“I feel that if I want change, I have to get up and make things happen myself,” she said. “It’s only through action that we can bring about change.”

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