Anti-migrant cause fails to woo voters

Strong Israel fails to pass election threshold and south Tel Aviv voters stray from Likud, Shas.

Strong Israel offices in south Tel Aviv 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Strong Israel offices in south Tel Aviv 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The office of the Strong Israel party on Hahagana Street in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv was a sad and deserted mess midday Wednesday, after the far-right party found itself outside the 19th Knesset.
Though the day before excited activists had spoken of possibly taking five – even six – mandates in the election, on Wednesday a single volunteer was mopping the floor of the small office of MK Michael Ben-Ari, as a pile of junked campaign posters piled high on the floor.
It was an inauspicious ending for a party that vowed to be the surprise of the elections, largely based on its unforgiving approach to the over 60,000 African migrants in the country, all of who they said must be deported immediately.
The African migrant population in Israel has been a convenient campaign issue for right-wing Israeli populations over recent years, a cause that has mixed fears of assimilation, crime, terrorism and urban blight with age-old class resentment toward Israeli elites. As much as the anti-migrant protests have stolen the headlines in the past year or two and formed the bread and butter of the campaigns of some right-wing parties, on Wednesday there was little reason to believe the cause paid off for those who carried the anti-migrant flag.
After the dust and the tattered banners settled on Wednesday, it appeared that like for other parties, the migrants issue was not enough to rally the voters for Strong Israel. In the end, the party won 61,825 votes, well below the 73,000 vote threshold to enter the Knesset.
In all of Tel Aviv, where tens of thousands of African migrants have moved in the past few years, the party only received 2,442 votes. The number was even more glaring at the Beit Ya’akov Seminar School voting station, right around the corner from Ben- Ari’s office in Hatikva, where, according to final voting results, the party only scored 23 votes out of 1,804 cast on election day.
For May Golan, a 26-year-old south Tel Aviv native who held the No. 10 spot on the party’s list, the result does not indicate that the migrants issue was not enough to bring voters to the polls, and instead pointed at wrongdoing on the part of Shas and the Likud.
“The Likud and Shas both talked about the infiltrators and tried to take credit for it, even though they did nothing,” Golan said. “People were willing to vote for us, and agreed with what we were saying, but then the Likud and Shas, who had hired activists, went door to door and scared people, saying that we won’t pass the threshold and a vote for us would be wasted.”
“People have a tendency to vote for people they think are strong, and they didn’t think we were going to be. It’s not because people didn’t care about this issue,” she added.
Shlomo Maslawi, head of the Hatikva neighborhood council and an activist who led a series of protests against the migrant population, said there was no reason to believe that the issue was not a galvanizing one for voters, and the fact that Shas and Likud were not able to solve it pushed south Tel Aviv voters to Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi.
“There were people who were so frustrated by the Likud’s inaction that they didn’t go vote at all, or they refused to vote for Shas and Likud because they failed to deal with the infiltrators,” Maslawi said.
Since Shas spoke so much about the issue, he continued, they set the bar high and were expected to bring solutions.
When they didn’t, people moved away from them and voted for other parties they thought would support social issues. In regard to the Likud, Maslawi surmised that the party’s union with the secular Yisrael Beytenu pushed many traditional Sephardi voters from south Tel Aviv away from the Likud toward Bayit Yehudi.
“Yoni,” a Shas official close to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, spun the results differently, saying that the migrant issue was important to voters, and the reason the party didn’t garner more mandates in the election was solely because they did not hammer the issue home more during the campaign.
The official’s words reflected the bitter rivalry between Yishai and Shas co-leader Arye Deri, who Yoni said “decided to run a campaign that was stuck in the ‘80s.”
“He kept talking about poor, persecuted Mizrahi people, and this offended people. They said this isn’t who we are and a lot of them, because they care about social issues, went to Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz instead,” he said.
Yoni said that when he toured south Tel Aviv with Yishai, people told them repeatedly that the “infiltrators” issue is the most grave one they face and that by focusing instead on social issues, Deri cost the party at least three mandates.
“The fact that Arye Deri put the issue aside and decided to focus solely on social issues hurt Shas, and when Eli Yishai began to push the issue it was too little too late.”