Sderot torn between political loyalties

Many across the impoverished south just want to see their economically crippled towns healed.

bibi and peretz 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
bibi and peretz 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Local lore has it that Sasson Sarah, the disheveled owner of a popular Sderot newsstand, is the town's political weather vane. A pack rat who "archives" moldy tabloids from over a year ago, Sarah plans to stick with Likud, even after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dramatic departure from the party he founded over 30 years ago. But the advent of Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, who grew up and still lives in this town has upended Sarah's legacy as an oracle. The people of Sderot, the favored target of Kassam rockets lobbed from Gaza, are near despair. Unemployment fluctuates between 13-19% - the national average is less than 10% - the average salary is about NIS 3,000, according to the municipality, and, add locals, the city is infested by mice. "The big issue," says Shay Ben-Ishai, 39-year-old deputy mayor of this town of around 25,000, "is no longer borders, and peace and security, but society and economy." That means that even Sarah, 53, a member of the mighty Likud central committee, knows that most here and across Israel's impoverished south just want to see their economically crippled towns healed. Between selling bottles of beer, Sarah does his part, doling out a few coins to a pauper or a fistful of shekels to a friend in dire need of a dentist. Everybody in this polyglot town of Moroccan, former Soviet, and Ethiopian immigrants knows more than a little charity is needed. At the end of the day, even Sarah admits, "well, if [Peretz] weren't so left wing, I would have to consider him." This traditionally right-leaning town is caught between Sarah's new Likud, the homegrown Peretz, and the man who lives in the big ranch just a few kilometers out of town - Sharon. Sarah, who wears a crocheted kippa atop an unkempt nest of gray hair, went to school with Peretz back in the 1950s and 1960s. He warns that both Peretz - his former school pal and current neighbor - and Sharon could bring ruin: "They will eventually divide Jerusalem." But, a few stores down the same battered strip mall, Sarah's neighbors say, "Let 'em." Yaffa Malka, owner of Yaffa's Beauty Salon, explains that "everybody knows we'll lose the West Bank, or most of it." The blond (dyed) and blue-eyed (colored contacts) Malka adds that "Amir," as Peretz is known here, "can give us hope. He has sacrificed himself for the poor and we'll stand by him." A friend lounging in a barber's chair calls out the one qualification that Peretz himself refuses to tout: "He's Sephardic; that's the most important reason I'll vote for him." Asked why he seemed to be the only one in Sderot willing to trot out the "ethnic demon," as it is known in Israel, the man answers, "maybe that's because I am from [the neighboring] Netivot." Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Uzi Dayan, head of the Tafnit Movement, initiated the Sderot Conference for Society three years ago, on the premise that "Israelis need social and economic change more than anything else." Dayan says he resigned as Sharon's national security adviser in 2001 because the prime minister refused to allocate the necessary funds towards education. But some disgruntled Sderot natives are unwilling to accept even this kind of attention. Standing outside the conference Tuesday, Micha Kalfa, a 29-year-old teacher at Sapir College, saw hypocrisy. "The elites have come to 'discuss and analyze,'" he says, sneering at the words, "the unfairness of people getting minimum wage. In the meantime, the people serving them lunch aren't even pulling in minimum wage." Kalfa, who, like many locals grew up in the Likud-affiliated Beitar movement, says, "It's time to make room for the younger generation." For the first time in his life he intends to vote for Labor, for Peretz, and not only because he roomed with the Labor chairman's daughter in university. "Ideology is gone, and all that's left is saving society and the economy," he reasons. Just outside the college building, two Chinese laborers poured cement. Kalfa looks down on them and jokes, "they are the only real Zionists left." According to Professor Amnon Sela of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel's community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union might be a more accurate political weather vane than Sasson Sarah. The Russian swing vote, which he estimates at about 15 percent, has thrown its support for the past four prime ministers: Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon. For Ala Yesipof, a 48-year-old who left Ukraine and her factory job six years ago, the choice of the next prime minister isn't one of swing votes, race, or even a political platform. "Sharon," she says, clenching a bony hand into a fist, "is real man." In her broken Hebrew, Yesipof adds: "I want a man with experience. I want a cold-blooded man who thinks with his head, not his heart."