In southern Israel, rockets divide, not unite, voters
Kibbutzniks on border with Gaza Strip lean leftward in hope for peace, but in Sderot, right-wing parties dominate
Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.
KIBBUTZ EIN HASHLOSHA — In spite of last year’s rockets and rocket attacks on the kibbutzim bordering the Gaza Strip, Yehuda Kedem said, he voted on Tuesday for Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union in the election.
Kedem, an 84-year-old founder of the collective community who immigrated from Argentina with the establishment of the state, said his reasoning, and that of many kibbutzniks in the area, was not just socioeconomic: It rested in his hope for coexistence with Palestinians who live a half mile away in the Gaza Strip.
Zionist Union banners fluttered at the entrances to the kibbutzim lining the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The small collective communities historically vote overwhelmingly for the socialist Labor Party, but in the southern towns next door — Sderot, Ofakim, and Netivot — right-wing parties reign.
The dichotomy between the two neighboring camps couldn’t be more stark on Tuesday as the country went to the polls. In the 2013 elections, Sderot voted 36 percent in favor of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance, 16% for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and 16% for Jewish Home. Labor won a mere 3% of the town’s votes.
“We think our future is based on security and stability,” Kedem said, but “there’s no reason to assume that a Herzog government will ignore the issue of security.”
“It’s not [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s monopoly,” he maintained. He pointed out the stagnation in the peace process under the incumbent prime minister, and said that ultimately a peace arrangement with the Palestinians would be more beneficial for lasting security.
In Sderot, however, residents who spoke to The Times of Israel said they were voting based on the looming issue of security. Sderot has suffered over a decade of frequent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, and locals said they voted for Likud or Jewish Home on account of those parties’ promises to maintain calm in southern Israel.
“Netanyahu — who else is there?” a shopkeeper in the city said as he gave directions to the nearest voting station, a school in the center of town.
All along the main avenue of town (appropriately named after Menachem Begin, the Likud party’s founder), banners of Netanyahu fluttered, flanked by those bearing the visages of fellow right-wing party leaders Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Eli Yishai. A truck plastered with Netanyahu posters rumbled around in circles near the central market. Not a single placard for a left-wing party could be seen.
Tal Biton, 25, owns an electronics store in the center of town. He said he voted for Likud because it has provided a general “daily routine” of calm since the ascension of Netanyahu to power in 2009.
Despite the south’s flagging economy, which took a major hit during last summer’s conflict, he pointed at the Likud government’s extension of the train line to Sderot and Netivot as major improvement to the quality of life for southern residents.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s improving,” he said. Some residents, he said, opted to vote for Kahlon, whose economic platform garnered support among the predominantly working-class Mizrahi voters in the city.
Laura, a Ukrainian immigrant in her 60s, said she voted for Netanyahu as well, because “there needs to be calm in Israel.” Everything else would follow, she said. Many of her fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union still support Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party, but she said she found his views too extreme.
“Liberman needs to be in the government, but with Netanyahu,” Laura said.
Zipping past orchards and fields by the border with the Gaza Strip, Dima, a cab driver and father of one who grew up in Sderot, said security is paramount for the city’s residents. “That’s why I voted for Bennett,” the leader of the Jewish Home party.
“We raise our kids in fear,” he said. “That’s why the city [leans] hard right.”
He applauded the Netanyahu administration’s harsh military responses to rocket fire, saying that only firm retaliation would ensure calm, which the south has enjoyed since last summer’s conflict ended.
Itzik Vaks, a 40-year veteran of Kibbutz Magen, said that generally speaking, the war in Gaza last summer didn’t affect his vote. Like in the 2013 election, he cast a ballot for the Meretz party. Last time, just shy of 60% of the community voted for the left-wing party, and another 17% voted Labor (right-wing parties took just 4% of the vote).
Vaks, 60, dismissed a defense policy based on tit for tat, saying it was “not a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it would only bring about a more violent round next time.