A stronghold no longer

At Bashar's delicatessen in the heart of the Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market, Eli the owner vouchsafes that he'll be voting Labor in the next elections. Nothing new about that, he stresses. He's been a Labor supporter for years. What is new, he asserts, standing at his counter in front of a refrigerator overflowing with cheeses, is that several other stallholders will be voting for Labor, too, and more still for Ariel Sharon's new Kadima. "The shuk used to be a Likud stronghold," he says, accurately. "It isn't anymore. There are still plenty who will vote Likud, but not en masse like before. People have had a very hard time here in the last few years. Some of these guys are barely scraping by. The intifada years were terrible. But even now, for the fruit and vegetable stores, competition is incredibly tough and the profit margins are slim. A lot of them feel that the Likud's financial policies have been too tough. At the same time, a lot of them respect Sharon for quelling the terrorism." Three stores lower down, at a backgammon game played directly beneath a massive wall painting of Menachem Begin, I test Eli's contention. One player, erudite and bitter, is adamant that, for him, "it's only Likud," that all the Sharons - Arik, Omri and Gilad - are corrupt, and that (with Tzipi Livni an honorable exception) those who have gone with Sharon to Kadima have done so only because they knew the Likud would never reelect them. But his opponent, who owns the store, evinces a revulsion for Netanyahu so profound that he'd "be happy if Peretz gets in." He scoffs gruesomely that Netanyahu and the Likud rebels "thought they were going to drink a glass of Sharon's blood, but he's going to wind up drinking theirs by the bottle." Asked to explain the sources of his antipathy, however, he repeats only that "the only thing that matters is that Bibi loses." Among another, larger group of backgammon players, elderly ones in the adjoining "Iraqi shuk," the pieces move faster and the words come more slowly but the divide is replicated. I hear the "only the Likud mantra" and also "only Sharon." And while nobody says "only Peretz," several players offer variations of "the key is to make peace with our neighbors." A man with rich silver hair in his late 70s tells me that "Labor lost me more than 50 years ago, when they refused to let me take a taxi home after I'd staffed a polling booth for them in Talpiot on election day - lost me for half a century for the price of a cab ride." He says he'll be voting for Sharon. "I always vote for Sharon. He knows what he's doing." Interjects his flat-capped opponent: "I haven't decided yet." He sighs, then muses: "They're all a bunch of self-interested folk. How can I be expected to take them seriously when they don't take themselves seriously?"