There’s no point in having cottage cheese for a shekel if an Iranian nuke falls on your head tomorrow and no matter what the media says, Benjamin Netanyahu will remain the next Prime Minister of Israel after the elections end Tuesday night. That appeared to be the prevailing sentiment in the coastal town of Or Akiva on the eve of the elections, after days in which the polls have been predicting defeat for the Likud.
Or Akiva is a rather poor, staunchly Likud town of between 15,000-20,000 residents that is literally on the wrong side of the tracks, or at least the coastal highway. Its sister city Caesarea – one of the richest towns in Israel and home to the Netanyahus and Israel’s only golf course – is next door but worlds away from what looks like another of Israel’s countless periphery towns that the Start-Up Nation seems to have passed by.
This election has been widely-described as a referendum on Netanyahu and if he’s voted out – an indictment on his stewardship of the country, in particular his handling of the country’s social issues and rising cost of living. In Or Akiva on Monday though, Netanyahu and his allies on the right were described as the only option to safeguard Israel’s security and prevent a takeover by the left.
“I can’t picture anyone other than Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] who is capable of being Prime Minister of Israel,” said Shimon Pahima, a 50-year-old father of two running a pizza restaurant in the center of town. Asked if people are sick of Netanyahu and ready for a change, he said that’s not the case and that his declining fortunes in recent polls are the result of outlets across the Israeli media conspiring to bring him down, a popular sentiment among those interviewed Monday.
He and others said that controversies about the Netanyahu couples’ penchant for excess and “Bottlegate”, were not a factor and little more than attempts by the press to beat up on the family ahead of Tuesday’s election.
Shimmy, working behind the counter of a sneaker store nearby said “everyone here is Likud but they’re sick of Bibi. Everyone is sick of him, but they’re more afraid of the left than they are of Bibi.”
Shimmy, who wore a black kippa and sat in front of a large, framed photograph of Sephardi sage the Baba Sali, said he would vote for Herzog and Livni’s Zionist Union before he burst out laughing and said he’d go with the Likud, in order to strengthen the right. He and two male friends at the store, identical twins who said they were voting Shas, took a moment to try and think of left-wing friend in town, and were only able to think of a local named Shalom, but even that wasn’t a sure thing.
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To be fair to Shalom, while he’s definitely in the minority, he’s not alone. In the January 2013 elections for the 19th Knesset, the left-wing Meretz party got 82 votes in Or Akiva, just over 1% of the tally, but still less than the marijuana legalization party Green Leaf, which got 97 votes. Across the board though, the town voted significantly more right than the country as a whole, and certainly more than their well-heeled sister city. While the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu joint list got 23.35% of the vote nationwide and in Ceasaria, in Or Akiva they received 46%. Next door in Caeasarea Meretz received 9% of the vote and Yesh Atid was the clear favorite, with 29% of the vote, as opposed to 10% in Or Akiva. Perhaps the starkest difference was with the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas. In Or Akiva they received 15% of the vote, almost double the national average, while in Caeasarea, they received a lowly 19 votes out of 2,593.
The support for Shas is not surprising in a town that is heavily Sephardi/Mizrachi and traditional. Also not surprising, the recent brouhaha over Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol’s branding of “mezuzah-kissing” Jews as “fools” did not go over well in a town named after one of Judaism’s greatest sages.
“What Jew doesn’t kiss a mezuzah? This really hurt me, of course this hurt,” said Yaakov Edri, a 72 year old local who said he and all his children would be voting for the Likud.
The Haredi man behind the counter at the supermarket, Haim Gvili, said he’d vote Shas even though he voted Bayit Yehudi the last time, but he appeared to be undecided. He said he also likes Moshe Kahlon “but he [Kahlon] zig-zags between the left and right” and that he thinks what’s most important is to strengthen Netanyahu with a vote for the Likud. The Zionist Union was not an option, and Meretz was not brought up.
At the city’s Likud party headquarters, 55-year-old Maimon Levy said he’s certain the town will go with Netanyahu and the Likud, just like they always have, and that the party will get 25 seats, far higher than the 20 recent polls have predicted.
“Maybe in the rest of the country people [in Likud] are worried, but not in Or Akiva.”
Just then an Arab Muslim man named Khaled from the nearby town of Fureidis comes in to take a Netanyahu t-shirt, and said that he and the rest of the town would be voting for the Likud. He said the right wing party helped repair local infrastructure in the area in recent years, perhaps explaining part of how they received 15% of the vote there in 2013.
Levy said the social issue would also be a big focus for Likud voters in Or Akiva on Tuesday, but that security would be the central issue here as well, even with the social issues faced by the town.
At the shuk, local David Avitan echoed that sentiment, saying “let’s say they make it where the prices are so cheap that you can buy a carton of cottage cheese and a packet of yellow cheese for a shekel but you go outside and a missile lands on your head, then what? What did you accomplish?”
The economic issues didn’t take a backseat to security though for Orit Saban, a 28-year-old staffer at the local Kulanu branch across the street from the Likud branch.
Saban said she’d moved back from Tel Aviv a few months earlier because the city was too expensive, only to find she had trouble making ends meet in Or Akiva too. She said that ultimately she’s not worried about the peace process or the two-state solution or the possibility of a binational state, just what she described as a sort of more just economic reality that would benefit Jews and Arabs alike. As she spoke, three young Arab men from Jisr az-Zarka, a desperately poor Arab village nearby, came in to take Kahlon notes to put in the voting booth on Tuesday, with all three saying they were going with Kahlon because he made cellular phone service cheaper back when he was Communications Minister. Saban read the slip to one of the men and instructed him on how to vote.
She said the last time she voted was probably back when she was 18. “My mother told me to vote Likud, we all voted Likud here, it’s what you did.”
On several occasions she said “Kahlon is Likud” and that no one needs to worry he’ll support left-wing policies on security issues or that voting for him is somehow a betrayal of their family ties to the Likud.
She wasn’t alone in making that assessment of Kahlon. Others in Or Akiva said they were considering Kahlon over the Likud, saying that they believed he would take care of social issues and do something about the cost of living, but could be trusted, that he wasn’t a lefty who would cave to the Arabs or sneer at people who kiss mezuzahs. The message seeming to be that leaving the Likud may be leaving home, but if you’re with Kahlon, you’re staying in the family. This sentiment could indicate the potential for Kahlon to perform better than expected on Tuesday and to be a real power broker after the polls close.
By and large though, the sentiment was one mainly of continuity – that this is a Likud town and there’s little reason to expect a dramatic change.
“I’ve voted Likud for 50 years and I will tomorrow. This is how our generation is. For our kids its different, but for us, we’re difficult,” said “Malka”, a resident in her late 60s, who didn’t want her name used because she works for the local authority.
That said, there were others for whom Likud has been family since day one, who said they won’t vote for Bibi, and are leaving the right wing altogether, at least this time.
“We were fed the Likud from day one at home, it was shot directly into our veins,” said Itzik Vaknin, a 61-year-old Haifa native in town for work.
“This time though, I want someone else. We need change, that’s the bottom line, maybe even Herzog, why not?”
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