Kassam-zone towns seen unlikely to change their voting habits

The western Negev communities have consistently voted Labor in the past, and that is how they plan to keep it this time around. You don't change your political views so easily, they say, and no, they aren't buying the promises of a quieter future made by the right-wing parties calling for a major military operation in Gaza. In the previous general election, held in March 2006, the Labor Party won in all the Kassam-stricken kibbutzim and moshavim in the western Negev. It fared the worst in Sderot, but still received a plurality of 25.4 percent, thanks in part to local boy Amir Peretz's presence at the head of the ticket. Labor has been and probably will remain the first choice for the area's kibbutznikim. In 2006, 59.6% of the residents of Kibbutz Nir Am, situated a few meters from Sderot on the Gaza side, voted Labor, 15.7% chose Kadima and 9.1% opted for Meretz. Avi Kadosh, the kibbutz's secretary, expects similar results this time around. "There is a big difference between what the gut screams and what the head says," Kadosh said. "I can say with confidence that I won't vote for Likud or any other right-wing party. If eventually there is a change in the voting behavior around here, it'll probably be because Kadima MK [Shai Hermesh], who lives in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, has managed to take some new voters with him," he added. Kadosh said that only now, after the Kassam rockets have started to reach additional cities and towns, had the government agreed to finish reinforcing Nir Am's buildings. "There is a feeling of disappointment here because of that. The government could have started the construction work long ago, but I don't think Likud would have done that any faster," he said. Just like the other kibbutzniks, Kadosh said he did not want a military operation inside Gaza. "I am not a philanthropist who is worried about the Palestinians, but it is clear to me that we will pay a price, and not just the heavy price of soldiers' lives but also a more general, economic and social price," he said. In Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where Labor received 66.3% of the votes in 2006, Kadima 12.2% and Meretz 8.9%, there may be a shift in February, but to the left. "I believe that more people will consider voting for Meretz now that it has merged with Hatnua Hahadasha. I, despite my disappointment in [Ehud] Barak, will vote for Labor," said Yoram Ziv, the kibbutz secretary. "Your political agenda is something you absorb from your parents, and as someone who grew up in a family that belonged to workers' parties, I still believe in this path." Kibbutz Mefalsim spokeswoman Yonit Tzamir denied that her kibbutz belonged to the left side of the political map, despite the fact that 61.1% of its residents voted for Labor in the last election. "The residents of Mefalsim vote for moderate parties and they back the moderate path as well," Tzamir said. "People who have seen wars don't want their children to see them too, and this is why we are searching for another way. "It's not a matter of Right or Left, it's a matter of staying here, living a good life and not being ignored by a government that only recently started [building] the shielding of our houses." For Kfar Aza spokesman Noam Tal, where in 2006 46.7% of the residents went with Labor, 34.2% voted Kadima and 8.4% chose Meretz, living under a constant threat to one's life has always been part of the Israeli reality. "Israelis have been under fire continuously since the state was established - on the northern border with Lebanon; in the Six Day War it was on the border with Jordan, then in the South; and when we are not in a state of war we have terrorist attacks and Kassams," Tal said. "None of this changes my point of view. I have always voted and I will continue to vote for Meretz." Security was not the only issue when it came to voting, he said, there were also social and economic factors. And while the Gaza-area communities are clearly a Labor stronghold, in the nearby southern cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba, which might share the experience of constant rocket attacks in the near future, the largest share of the support in 2006 went to Israel Beiteinu (22.3% in Ashkelon and 19.9% in Ashdod), and Kadima (with 21.5% of the votes in Beersheba). Prominent activists from the three "big parties" (Likud, Kadima and Labor) in these cities discussed the atmosphere in the South on the eve of yet another general election. "On the one hand I feel that we have missed something, but on the other hand this is the circle of life, and in the last elections Likud lost big time," Labor activist Shlomo Re'em said. "When I sit with Likud supporters and ask them what has Barak done wrong, they have no answer, because he didn't do anything wrong. He has rehabilitated the IDF and the security situation, [and] unlike what he says [in recent campaign publicity], he is actually a nice guy who hugs and kisses and speaks to people as equals. "So what if he got divorced and lives in a nice home, it's not like Bibi lives in a slum," Re'em added. If the IDF carried out a military operation inside Gaza in the next few days, "Barak will be back in the saddle again. This is the message I get from the people on the street," he said. Ashdod Deputy Mayor Leon Ben-Lulu of the Likud said many immigrants from the former Soviet Union lived in these cities, and that was why Israel Beiteinu was the strongest party there. "But I believe Likud will double its votes here in the elections because the last elections, when Likud was crushed to 12 Knesset seats, was the result of a protest vote and people have come to understand that they were wrong to leave Likud," he said. Kadima activist Doron Ben-Hemo thinks the party would regain its lost support in the South only if the government reestablished Israel's deterrence. "Kadima shouldn't have given the defense portfolio to any other party, that was a mistake. The people here are waiting for a miracle and we are all in fear that the situation will deteriorate and the rockets will reach us, too. "No other country would have allowed such situation of constant [rocket] fire, and Hamas should be put in its place," Ben-Hemo said. We don't want to go into Gaza and "we don't want to stay there, but Israel needs to teach Hamas a lesson and to regain its respect by conducting a not-so-large operation inside Gaza."