If Labor is to win back the Prime Minister's Office under Moroccan-born leader Amir Peretz, the party will first have to win over the Mizrahi residents of Tel Aviv's Hativka Quarter.
Standing outside the Labor Party's national headquarters in Tel Aviv's Hatikva Quarter, former MK Avi Yehezkel, who grew up in the neighborhood, recalled how the locals would ask him what this bourgeois Ashkenazi party, this "foreign implant," was doing there.
It was Ehud Barak's decision in 2000 to move the party headquarters from its old office building on Rehov Hayarkon, near the beach, to its current home - a one-story, beige compound next to a walled-off empty lot in what is probably the best-known urban, low-income Mizrahi neighborhood in the country. The idea was to change Labor's image and attract the amcha - the salt-of-the-earth Israelis, mainly Mizrahim, who tend to vote heavily for Likud or Shas and, on the whole, are said to hate Labor like the plague.
"It was a phony gesture, just like Barak's apology to the Mizrahim was phony," said Yehezkel, who is of Moroccan heritage. But Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born Histadrut leader from the Negev development town of Sderot, is the real thing, continued Yehezkel, who plans to run for Knesset again. "The Labor Party," he asserted, "isn't a foreign implant in the neighborhood anymore."
This is Labor's hope: that Peretz will be able to do what Barak's gestures didn't, and thereby give the party a shot at winning back the Prime Minister's Office - if not in the coming election, then after Sharon is gone. A poll in Yediot Aharonot last weekend put some ballast behind that hope, indicating that Peretz has lifted Labor's popularity dramatically since his November 9 election as party chairman, especially with development town residents, who are also mainly lower-middle-class Mizrahim.
Hatikva Quarter is probably as good a place as any to test this hopeful notion - to see if Peretz has a shot at convincing Mizrahi voters to put aside their old, bitter memories of the ma'abarot (immigrant transit camps) and the decades of Ashkenazi establishment patronization, to lose their preoccupation with Labor's perceived "bleeding heart" attitude toward the Arabs and indifference to Judaism, and vote for a party now led by someone who, by background, is "one of them," and who says that he, unlike both Labor and Likud leaders of the last generation, will put the economic welfare of people like them at the top of his agenda.
HATIKVA QUARTER is a large network of narrow streets with old, low apartment houses and seemingly jerry-built houses, some of them gentrified by the yuppies who've moved into the neighborhood for its matchless character. It's an aged area, with groups of Yemenite, Iraqi and Moroccan pensioners sitting around and talking on chairs and benches, although there has been an infusion of new blood in recent years from Russian immigrants.
The heart of Hatikva is Rehov Etzel, an angular throughfare-cum-promenade where drivers have to watch out for the old lady shoppers, old men on bicycles and flashy operators hollering into their cell phones who think nothing of suddenly darting into traffic. The street is named for Menachem Begin's pre-state underground militia, which was prominent in the neighborhood; one of the Middle Eastern grill restaurants on the street features framed photos of Etzel and Lehi fighters hanged by the British.
Rehov Etzel used to be known as a drug depot, but not anymore. Now it's a Mizrahi commercial fair, with pita bakeries, vendors selling hot, sweet sahlab, hole-in-the-wall restaurants selling kubeh or melawah, swanky grill restaurants like the original Shipudei Hatikva and Yehuda Avazi's, and the once gritty but recently remodeled Hatikva outdoor market.
Geographically, this is Labor's "street." Politically, Peretz seems to have brought it a lot closer to Labor than it was before, but he still has a long way to go.
THE HATIKVA outdoor market played a historic role in the 1999 campaign won by Barak. It was where Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, just retired as IDF chief of General Staff and the instant front-runner in the race for prime minister, got stopped cold. Coming off his entry into the campaign with the charge that incumbent premier Binyamin Netanyahu was "dangerous for Israel," Shahak went to do the traditional walkabout in the shouk, to show that he was beloved by the amcha - but instead, he got accosted by a furious vendor in a large, white kippa named Avi Levy, who hollered in the war hero's face about the Netanyahu remark and even shrieked that his wife, journalist Tali Lipkin-Shahak, was a miserable leftist.
Shahak's aides had to get between him and Levy. The candidate, who wasn't exactly used to this sort of treatment, didn't fight back, as if he was either caught off guard or didn't want to lower himself to the level of some pickle-seller. It was a fatal move. Right away, Shahak's standing in the polls sank like a stone.
"He was a general and he got brought down by the rabble. People said, 'If that's the way he handles some guy from the shouk, how will he do when he's really under pressure?'" recalled Levy, who still runs the same vegetable stand with his brother that he did in 1999.
But the kippa is gone, and Levy's political allegiance has changed, too. In the 1996 and 1999 campaigns he worked for Netanyahu. In 2001 he worked for Likud and Ariel Sharon. In 2003 he worked for Am Ehad - One Nation - and its leader, Amir Peretz.
One Nation activists approached him, he says, and he went to meet Peretz at his office. "He convinced me that he really wanted to lead a social change in this country. He's a special personality. To me he's the Israeli Che Guevara," said Levy. He organized Peretz's 2003 campaign stop at the shouk. "We decorated the place in orange [which was One Nation's color well before the anti-disengagement movement adopted it]. People lifted him on their shoulders, they threw rice and candy at him."
The Yediot poll showed that development town residents, who once were a major part of Netanyahu's electoral base, have deserted him in droves, and hold him responsible, above anyone else, for the increase in poverty. Levy is part of that political migration.
"Netanyahu acted with a lot of arrogance when he was finance minister. I have five kids, and I used to get NIS 1,500 in child allowances. But with the budget cuts, I'm getting half that or less," he said.
For many of Israel's amcha, including Levy, the rise in poverty works strongly in Peretz's favor. But Peretz has one big problem in their eyes - his party. While his background as one of Peace Now's early adherents, and his unreconstructed faith in the Oslo accord still isn't that well known - although in a national campaign, Likud and Sharon's new centrist party will certainly make it so - the Labor Party remains an albatross around Peretz's neck as far as Levy is concerned.
"In the next election, it's hard to say how people here are going to accept him, because now he's running for prime minister on the Labor ticket," says Levy. Pointing to the photo of Begin above his stall (next to the pennant of Bnei Yehuda, Hatikva's soccer team), he continues, "When it comes to peace and the territories, I'm very right-wing. I used to be with Kahane, I used to hang out in Hebron. I'm an independent now, but I would find it hard to put a Labor slip in the ballot box. My hand would shake. So as far as voting for Labor, even with Peretz, I'm 50-50. That's how everybody here feels."
IN A CORNER of the shouk where little cafes stand next to tea kiosks, scores of old men are playing dominoes. There, Morris Binyamin, 65, is working behind the counter of his "Kubeh Center" restaurant, tending to his kubeh in their pots of boiling water. Taped to his counter is a photo of him standing next to Peretz, taken during the Labor leader's campaign visit with One Nation.
"I like Peretz a lot. He doesn't sell out the workers. He helps everyone," says Binyamin, who came to Israel from Iraq shortly after independence, and supported Mapai in the ma'abara at Rosh Pina, but switched to Likud after moving to Hatikva in 1952.
Will he vote Labor in the next election? "I like Peretz, but I won't leave Likud," Binyamin replies. "I'm crazy about Likud. I'm a Herutnik [referring to the Likud's original core party] in my blood."
This is the stereotype about Mizrahi amcha - Likud is in their blood. Around the shouk, though, there are quite a few people who don't hesitate to say, without whispering, that they always vote Labor. Eli Srugo, a dried fruit vendor and Laborite of Yemenite heritage, says Peretz is winning over some of his Likudnik customers. "They say that if we can't have a Yemenite chief of General Staff [as Ben-Gurion foresaw], then maybe we can have a Mizrahi prime minister," he says with a broad smile.
The walls next to the old tea kiosks are plastered with death notices. A pair of cats chow down on a hunk of chicken tossed to them by one of the cooks.
"Do you see garbage like that at any Ashkenazi social clubs? Only at the Sephardi ones," says Ezra Tzemach, 74, who alternates between Labor and Likud, but almost always votes against the party in power.
At the dominoes tables, where the clatter of slapping tiles mixes with the guttural, rasping chatter of the players, Avraham Purim, 74, says he was with the Etzel as a teenager in Hatikva and stayed faithful to Herut-Likud until the Lebanon War.
"Then I decided that Israel can't live by its sword forever," Purim says. He is prepared to vote for Peretz and Labor, but only if the new party leader convinces him that he'll help the poor and not just the Histadrut, and that he'll "go for peace at any cost."
Yossi Habib, a nephew of Binyamin's and an employee at Kubeh Center, says he was raised a Likud loyalist, but Netanyahu's budget cuts pushed him over to Labor.
"Bibi took money from my grandmother and gave it to the rich. If he came to the shouk now, they'd throw tomatoes at him. If Peretz came, they'd hug him and kiss him," said Habib, 28. "Peretz is my man. If I had to choose between Bibi and Arafat, I'd vote for Arafat, how's that?" he declared.
Generalizations, no matter how valid, don't always apply.
ANOTHER TEST that can be done in Hatikva Quarter is whether the Labor Party's move there was, as Yehezkel puts it, a phony gesture, or whether the party really did try to connect to the community. People in the shouk cafes and in the Rehov Etzel restaurants say the only Labor higher-up who comes to eat there on a fairly regular basis is Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, the Iraqi-born "king of the grassroots" with the king-sized appetite.
As for the others, "They only show up before elections," says Motti Elimelech, owner of Shipudei Hatikva, sitting with two cell phones, a pack of Kents and a ringful of keys out on the table, waiting for the lunch crowd. His walls feature photos of Labor's Dalia Itzik, Haim Ramon and Shimon Peres, but this eatery, he says with a smile, is "Likud territory." He brings over his latest prize - a photo taken the previous week when the party's first couple, Silvan Shalom and Judy Nir Mozes-Shalom, came by for dinner.
Still, it turns out that while the Labor Party's stars may not be making many appearances on the local kebab circuit, the party has made a genuine effort in recent years to help the people of Hatikva Quarter, says Arik Shua, general manager of Beit Dani, which, with weekly activities that attract 7,000 local participants, is one of the busiest community centers in Israel, as well as the most vital social institution in the neighborhood.
"On Passover [the Labor Party] contributes boxes of food for the old people, they sent a choir to sing here on Rosh Hashana, they give computers and all sorts of other things to the children's classes. Every time we have some event, we're in contact with them," says Shua.
Moreover, Labor's donations to Beit Dani have been made in a strictly low-profile manner, with little or no "donor recognition," Shua notes, because the center, being a publicly-funded institution, cannot be politicized in any way. "When we tell them that their involvement has to be done without headlines, they always agree," he said.
One of the walls in Yehuda Avazi's grill restaurant is devoted to Yitzhak Rabin, featuring photos and newspaper clippings from his stopover there on the 1992 campaign. The sub-headline of one clipping reads, "'You're a helluva guy,' they shouted at Rabin in Hatikva." The stories tell how Rabin, while not really knowing his way around a skewer of shishlik, nevertheless won the locals over with his lack of pretension.
The fact is that over the decades, Israel's Mizrahi amcha have given their hearts and votes to a remarkably wide range of leaders - a bespectacled, ultra-nationalistic Polish gentleman (Begin); a defiant, Moroccan-born, working-man upstart (David Levy); and a handsome, rich, supremely confident, American-style hawk (Netanyahu). Will they turn this time to Peretz - or will their hands shake too much to vote Labor?
"If the election is fought mainly over social issues, then he could win," says Avi Levy. "I may or may not decide to vote for Peretz, but even if I do," he says, pointing again to the photo hanging over his stall, "My veins will still have Begin's blood in them."