Dimona - The Likud’s desert stronghold

The Periphery: Why do residents of Dimona continue to pledge allegiance to Bibi?

ONE RESIDENT said he remembers Dimona when entire neighborhoods had only one television. ‘Now everyone has one. The Likud changed that.’  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ONE RESIDENT said he remembers Dimona when entire neighborhoods had only one television. ‘Now everyone has one. The Likud changed that.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Come hell or high water, Dimona – a dusty, desert outpost of some 35,000 people in the middle of the Negev – is a Likud town. A stereotypical Likud town.
Planted in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1950s, Dimona is one of those pop-up towns in the periphery where mostly North African immigrants were sent to settle in the 1950s.
The landscape along the 30-km. road from Beersheba to Dimona looks severe and unforgiving. Rough. Harsh. Brown, even in the midst of a very wet winter. Unauthorized Bedouin enclaves seem scattered everywhere.
Dimona’s city center looks like a throwback to an earlier Israel. City hall overlooks a central square where there is a large supermarket and a covered passageway dotted by shops – a cellphone store, a jewelry store, a falafel stand, a toy store.
In the middle of the square sits a piano. An elderly woman watches as what appears to be her granddaughter bangs out a few chords. She gives her instructions in Russian.
Though election season is well under way, there is no trace of it at all in the square. No signs, no bumper stickers, no large posters featuring Benjamin Netanyahu’s smile or Benny Gantz’s blue eyes.
Nor are the townsfolk all too eager to speak about their politics to complete strangers. Saying you’re from the press – especially the English-language press – does not carry much cachet here.
“I don’t talk politics,” said a saleswoman smoking outside her jewelry store.
“I’ve got nothing to say,” snapped a man sipping coffee at a small table outside of a kiosk selling lotto tickets.
Finally, after a number of tries, a man in his fifties – with a gray, short-cropped beard and a black kippah who was taking a break outside the supermarket where he works – was willing to talk about Dimona as a Likud bastion. His one condition: no name.
“What do I need it for?” he asked. “Why look for trouble?”
“We don’t forget what it was like when Mapai was in power,” he said, warming up to the issue and remembering back to Dimona in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
He paused for a second to greet a middle-aged woman passing by.
“Shalom, Mrs. Cohen,” he said. Seconds later another woman passed by, and he said the same thing: “Shalom, Mrs. Cohen.”
“Not related,” he volunteered, with a chuckle. “There are a lot of Mrs. Cohens here.”
There are also, he said, a lot of people – like himself – who remember the days when if you were not a member of the Labor Party-controlled Histadrut labor federation, and if you did not have the red Histadrut card, you would have difficulty finding work or even gaining membership into a health fund.
“There was inequality,” he said, “discrimination. Now there isn’t. The Likud changed that.”
The man said he remembers Dimona when entire neighborhoods had only one television. “Now everyone has one. The Likud changed that.”
According to this Likud supporter – who is not bothered by the criminal charges against Netanyahu because he said they are merely the product of people trying to remove the prime minister from office through legal means, since they have failed to do so at the ballot – people’s allegiance in Dimona is not as much to Netanyahu as it is to the Likud.
In his view, it really doesn’t matter who the party would place on the top of its list, because the memories of the humiliation under the Mapai are so strong – so ingrained in people’s minds – that the city will always vote Likud.
AND IT DOES, in huge numbers. Just over 55% of the 16,894 votes cast in Dimona in the September election went to the Likud, down just slightly from the more than 56% who voted for the party in the April elections. This is not the very highest percentage for the Likud in the land, but it comes close. Both Beit She’an and Kiryat Shmona, cities with a similar socioeconomic makeup to Dimona, registered slightly higher percentages for the Likud the last time around.
Despite those impressive numbers, Netanyahu is set to make a campaign appearance in the city on February 20, just 12 days before the election. But why spend time going to a city where over half of the votes last time went to the Likud? Why not go to a new place to woo new voters?
The reason, explains Dimona Mayor and Likud activist Benny Biton, is to increase turnout. True, the Likud won 55% of Dimona’s votes in September, but voter turnout in the city was only 60%, a full 10% less than the national average, and 15% less than the turnout in Hod Hasharon.
And why is Hod Hasharon a comparative measuring stick? Because Hod Hasharon has been a Labor bastion for as long as Dimona has been a Likud one. And now, with the disintegration of Labor, Hod Hasharon’s votes have gone to the various spin-offs from Labor: first Yesh Atid, and in the past two elections Blue and White.
Many observers look at Dimona and are amazed that 55% of its voters cast their ballots for the Likud. But how about the fact that in the last election, 53% of Hod Hasharon voters voted for Benny Gantz?
And there’s the rub: While in Dimona, 60% of the people came out to vote, in Hod Hasharon, some 76% turned out to vote. And this lower turnout is not only true of Dimona. In Kiryat Shmona, Sderot, even in Beit She’an – Likud strongholds – the turnout in the last election was lower than the national average, and also lower than Blue and White strongholds like Hod Hasharon.
And that, right now, is the Likud’s focus – to turn out the voters in the periphery, where there is massive support for the Likud, but not always massive turnout to the polls.
Which is why Netanyahu is traveling to Dimona – a city that Biton said will change fundamentally as a result of an agreement signed with the government in 2018 that will funnel some NIS 5.5 billion into the city over the next decade, with the goal of tripling the city’s population.
Biton, who heads Netanyahu’s campaign operation from Ashkelon to Eilat, said that according to the party’s figures, there are 300,000 Likudniks who did not go out to vote in the last election.
“That represents four or five mandates, and is what is needed [for the right-wing bloc] to get to 61 or 62 Knesset seats,” he said. “This is the difference.”
Biton does not completely agree with the assessment that in his town it doesn’t matter who the Likud candidate is, since the people will always vote for the party. In past elections Dimona voted about 40% for the Likud, he said, adding that Netanyahu ramped that percentage up another 16 points.
And Dimona is not alone. Netanyahu remains very popular in other southern periphery cities as well: Netivot, Ofakim and Sderot.
“People ask, ‘Why do residents of the South vote for Bibi?’” Biton said. “He received 45% of the vote in Sderot, even with all the Qassam rockets and everything else.
“But look at Sderot; it has developed under Netanyahu,” he added. “As has Netivot, and Yeroham, and Ofakim. Bibi knows how to touch people, understands them, speaks their language, talks to them at eye level.”
The Dimona mayor said that while for many in the periphery the traumas of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s under Mapai rule still exist, there is a “new generation” in his town which did not experience those traumas, and who are now voting for the Likud not because their parents did, but because of what the party is doing for them now.
As far as the criminal indictments against the prime minister, Biton said that until there is a clear verdict in the case, there is no need for Netanyahu to move aside.
“We are a nation of law and order, and this does matter to me” he said. “But we say that until there is a final verdict, he is innocent, and we will wait.”
EREZ COHEN, a lecturer and researcher in public policy at Ariel University, described the connection of mizrahi voters in periphery towns such as Dimona to the Likud in terms of deeply rooted allegiances to a sports team.
“It’s like when you are a child, and begin to love a certain soccer or basketball team, and that connection is maintained over years,” he said.
“It is impossible to change an allegiance to a soccer team. It’s an emotional, not rational, connection that lasts 30, 40 years later, when the players are all different, the coach is different, and the team is not as good as it once was. Yet always, somewhere in your heart, you want it to win, and don’t want its rival to win.”
Ironically, he said, residents of towns in the periphery developed this allegiance to the Likud – a party pushing free market economics – rather than to Labor, whose soft socialist economic policies, at least on paper, were better for them economically.
The reason, he said, is that when Israelis vote, they do not vote on economic issues, but, rather, on national security issues. So even if a party’s economic policies may theoretically be better for one’s own personal interests, that will not necessarily dictate one’s vote.
Cohen said that the party allegiance toward the Likud weakens when it passes from parents to their children, and that he does not believe that in 20 years from now the same voting patterns in the periphery will exist as they do today.
The younger generation, he said, “doesn’t know the history, Menachem Begin, the way the periphery was treated by the Ashkenazi elites. It is easier for them to switch to other parties that may better represent their interests.”
As to why Netanyahu’s indictments don’t seem to be making any difference on how people will vote in places like Dimona, Cohen attributed this to what psychologists call a “boomerang effect.”
“If you take upon yourself a certain position or ideology, and see it come under attack, the tendency is to get even stronger behind it,” he said.
Therefore, according to Cohen, the more Netanyahu is attacked, and the more his followers are derogatively described as Bibi-ists who are not rational or intellectual, then their automatic reflex is to support him even more, “to support him davka.”
Asher Cohen, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, noted that the voting pattern for the Likud in the periphery goes back over 40 years to Begin’s landmark victory over Shimon Peres in 1977, and has continued now for three generations.
To explain the longevity of the phenomenon, he said, it is necessary to understand that this party link is also “a question of identity.”
“Most mizrahim [descendants of local Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa] in the country are religiously traditional, and most of those who are religiously traditional are mizrahim,” he said. “And the Likud is identified as a more religiously traditional party, and the Left as more secular.”
As a result, Cohen maintained, many people ask themselves whether they want to vote for a party whose outlook is more traditional, like their own, and for which religious tradition is important – though it is not a religious party – or for a party that is very strongly secular.
Cohen said that another aspect of the periphery’s affinity for the Likud, and one of the party’s attractions, is that it is viewed positively as the antiestablishment party.
What makes this so particularly interesting, he said, is that this “antiestablishment” party has, except for a few short lapses, effectively ruled the country since 1977.
Cohen said that the reason the party has been able to retain this antiestablishment élan is that while the Likud may have taken control of the levers of government, other sources of power – the media, academia, the judiciary – are still widely perceived as being very much in the hands of the Ashkenazi elite.
Fighting against that elite establishment is still a chord that resonates loudly for those living in the periphery, and one that Netanyahu plays like a maestro.