Almost as many opinions as political parties

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Almost as many opinions as political parties

Nathan Jeffay meets Israeli voters from across the political and demographic spectrum, to find our why they voted the way they did

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/JINI/Handout via Xinhua)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote during the Israeli parliamentary elections in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/JINI/Handout via Xinhua)

“They’ve tried to sew him up,” said Asher Kallon, explaining why the ongoing corruption case didn’t stop him from voting for Benjamin Netanyahu. In his opinion, proceedings are politically motivated, and the PM is clean.  

Whatever happens now, the fact is that Netanyahu has weathered four elections since the police began to investigate the allegations against him, and in each of them emerged strong. It’s still unclear whether he will stay on as Prime Minister, but as of press time he certainly has a good chance.  

Who would have predicted this back in 2016, when allegations surfaced? And who would have thought this possible even if he had to contend with a pandemic and months of protests against him? 

But voters like Kallon, 62, keep him popular. “He’s the strongest leader Israel has, for the issues we face at home and abroad,” he said, voicing a common refrain of the pro-Bibi camp, namely that nobody else has the skills and gravitas to lead Israel.

Gadi Mavgauker, 45, of Yokneam Illit (Photo: Nathan Jeffay)

Some Netanyahu faithful are less cynical about the corruption case than Kallon. Gadi Mavgauker, 45, said: “If he’s proved guilty he’ll get what’s coming to him, but if not, he should be Prime Minister.” He insisted: ““For the last 12 years, since he was elected, things have been good here.”

But the nation is divided, as shown by the results. For each person you meet who loves Netanyahu, you meet another who is disillusioned with him. Adi Biton, 52, said she is “really a Likudnik but can’t vote for Netanyahu.”

She opted for Yair Lapid’sYeshAtid party instead even though — like many Israelis — she felt it was the best available option and far from her ideal. “I voted for Yair Lapid, though I’m not sure I have faith in him,” she said. “However, it’s time to freshen things up. I weighed up the other options and really couldn’t vote for any of them.” 

Adi Biton (Photo: Nathan Jeffay)

Amram Neeman felt much the same. “Nothing has changed, we’ve had all these elections and nothing has changed,” he complained. 

His family, sitting with him on a bench in a mall, nodded in agreement. He voted for YeshAtid; his wife and son also voted centrist. Neeman said he admires what he considers the “real” and principled Israeli right. “I voted for Menachem Begin, who was what I consider a real example of what right-wing should be,” he argued. 

Religious-secular dynamics played a major role on election day. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party played a trump card strategy when it came to many religious voters. Faith in God, it argued, goes hand-in-hand with voting Shas. “Vote Shas, and the Holly One Blessed Be He will save us,” says the slogan on a jolly Passover-themed video. 

It was the motif of much of the campaigning, and it seems that no party has as many cars bedecked with posters and kids reducing bikes with campaign flags as Shas. Vehicles were bedecked with iconic images of the late spiritual icon of the party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the loudspeakers blared campaign jingles with the sound of traditional religious music. 

Meanwhile, Yisrael Beiteinu party intentionally picked a fight with Israel’s Charedim. Secularist Avigdor Liberman, who leads the faction, seemed to be intentionally mimicking Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial 2015 comment that Israeli Arabs were heading to polling stations “in droves” when he said on election day that strictly-Orthodox Israelis are “rising” to stations.

Many of his supporters are drawn to him for wanting to challenge the strictly-Orthodox influence on politics. Eli Hakiti, a 20-year-old delivery driver, is keen to see civil marriage in Israel before he wants to wed, as currently only religious marriage is available. 

“I’m not Jewish, which means I can’t have a religious marriage and would need to convert to Judaism to marry,” he said, lauding Liberman for championing civil marriage. “I like this ideal of Lieberman, and his other ideas. I don’t want Bibi, and Lieberman is the best option.” 

Arab society was divided, just like the rest of Israel. Previous elections saw the many Arab parties run together as the Joint List; this time, it was fragmented, with a conservative faction running separately.

But there is also a feeling among many Arab voters, especially the young, that the existing parties aren’t serving their interests.

Emad Masri, 27, was considering not voting at all, when interviewed in the middle of the day. “I don’t know if I’ll vote, it feels like a waste of time,” he said. “I’m Arab and I’m expected to vote for the Arab party [Joint List], but I feel that the politicians just want to get their seats. I don’t know if I’ll end up voting.”  

Some Arab voters took a very different view, not only enthusing about the election, but also embracing Netanyahu. HamudiAmash, a 26-year-old from Jisr az-Zarqa, voted for Netanyahu’s Likud. He insisted that Arab society is misunderstood, and while some are very antagonistic to the PM, others have lots of time for him.

“He’s a good man and I’m used to Israel led by him,” said Amash, who was in his mid-teens when Netanyahu entered office. He said that Netanyahu is liked in his town, which is close to near Caesarea where Netanyahu has his private home. “He’s our neighbour, we like him.”

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