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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
No Likud supporter could be found at a paper goods store in Ashkelon on Monday afternoon, even though the party's leader Binyamin Netanyahu was only a short distance down the street in the city center seeking votes.
From Sderot to Ofakim, Netanyahu worked his way through the south on Monday, talking tough against Hamas and showering praises on the economic policies he instituted before quitting his post as finance minister last year.
"The hard days are behind us, the good days are ahead of us," promised Netanyahu in a number of speeches on Monday.
But those in the paper goods store in the southern city, who were sifting through a wide selection of paper plates and fancy napkins couldn't be bothered to listen. They saw only the hard days with slim hope of a good future, particularly if Netanyahu would lead the country.
Malcha Duvinsky said that two of her three adult children have moved to Canada for economic reasons. "I couldn't argue with them, they make much more money than here," she said. She is even thinking of joining them, along with her other child.
She moved to Israel from the Ukraine in 1988 for Zionistic reasons, said Duvisnky, even though she had the option of living in the United States. Now she sees that a deep belief in the country is not enough if it, in turn, doesn't offer good living conditions to its citizens.
"There's no security, no money, and the government doesn't care about it's people," she said.
When asked, she bristled at the description of herself as a "Russian voter." After 18 years of living in Israel, she considers herself Israeli, she said.
But it is true, that irrespective of her native country, her politician of choice, is Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Israel Beiteinu party. "He seems all right," she said.
Standing next to her, Yehuda Shibi rushed to weigh in on the conversation, explaining that he too, hated Netanyahu whose policies cut NIS 200 from his father's pension payments. "Netanyahu is killing the state," he said.
"Vote Lieberman," suggested Duvinsky. But Shibi responded he's too discouraged to vote.
Standing behind the counter, Tzipi Weissman said she too, was "tired of voting." As she finished ringing up a sale, she added, "There are elections all the time, it's too much."
Should she change her mind and opt to vote, she certainly would not chose Netanyahu because she is evaluating politicians through an economic lens, Weissman said. As a religious woman, she would opt for Shas.
At the nearby coffee shop Netanyahu was more popular. "Bibi's a good guy," said Micha Simon, who was busy making espressos behind the counter.
His brother Dror, was less sure. But then, upon reflection, he knocked out all the other options. As a secular Israeli, the idea of voting for Shas made him laugh. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn't have enough experience, nor does Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, he said.
Still, a Maariv poll from last Thursday showed that the Likud was coming in third in development towns in the south. It's a shift from its past history of holding a majority in those areas since 1977.
MK Limor Livnat who traveled with Netanyahu said that they had come to show that "Netanyahu cares about the south."
The Deputy Mayor of Ofakim, Victor Rachmilov, who is also in charge of the Likud's door to door campaign in the south, said he found that while many people were receptive to the Likud, with the exception of the Russian immigrants who were favoring Israel Beineinu.
"The Russians are losing their faith in Israeli politicians," he said. In general, he said, he is finding strong support for the Likud compared with Kadima and Labor, as well as a high percentage of undecided voters. Ofakim Mayor Avi Asaraf, said the Maariv poll, was wrong. He predicted the Likud would win out in the south, and in Ofakim in particular it would do better than last time.
Speaking in Ofakim, Netivot and Ashkelon, Netanyahu told Likud activists that their work in the next few weeks was critical in making a difference on election day. Looking at the standing room only crowd of supporters in Ashkelon, he said, "there are many mandates that are still on the fence."
In Netivot and Ofakim, he defended his record as finance minister explaining that he had taken harsh measures to save the economy and refill Israel's coffers, which at the time had stood empty.
"We were like a business that was going to close," he said, and added that his policies changed all that. Now, he said, Israel can reap the fruits of those efforts. Israel's economy, he claimed, is growing faster than that of the United States and Ireland.
With an eye towards helping the south, he promised to build a train line to Eilat that would run through the region, linking it to Jerusalem and to the center of the country. As a result of the easy access, this area "will no longer be the periphery," he said. Netanyahu also promised to free up land for development.
Outside of economics, he spent much of the day speaking about the threat Israel faces from Hamas. Standing on a sandy hilltop outside Ashkelon, Netanyahu looked out at a view that extended to Gaza. He said, that by his count, some 300 rockets had been launched from Gaza towards Israel since the summer.
"I will have zero tolerance for Kassam [rockets]," Netanyahu promised. "We will stop the Kassams from falling in Ashkelon," he said. Furthermore, he added, "I will stop the policy of withdrawals."
In Netivot, as he paced in front of a row of white and blue Likud signs that stated, "Netanyahu, strong against Hamas," he added, "every centimeter that we give to them, they will use against us."
He accused Olmert of being farther Left of well known left-wing politicians such as Meretz-Yahad leader Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, now of Kadima.
"There is no center" party, he said, there is the Left, headed by Olmert, or the national camp, led by the Likud. Those who believe that peace comes through concessions to terror should vote for Olmert. Those who want to stand strong in defense of the country should vote for the Likud, he said.
Among those who came to hear him in Ofakim, was a new Likud voter named Shuli, who preferred her last name not be used. She waited in a stuffy crowded room at the Likud branch just to hear Netanyahu speak. Shuli said she supports the Likud in this election for security reasons. "I'm afraid of what will happen to the country if Netanyahu does not win," she said.