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Elections in the Land Of The Israeli Voter

From soccer stands to upscale Tel Aviv, our Israel Pulse columnists went into the field to talk to voters: Ben Caspit from Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa on "The Political Soccer Match of All Time;" Shlomi Eldar from Umm al-Fahm on "Apathy and Alienation on the Arab Street;" Akiva Eldar from Netanya on "The New Immigrant Vote;" and Mazal Mualem from "The Tel Aviv Bubble."
A man stands next to campaign banners depicting Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Likud-Yisrael Beitenu activists draped them on walls surrounding Jerusalem's Old City January 20, 2013. Netanyahu said on Saturday a country with as many enemies as Israel cannot afford a weak ruling party, after polls ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary election showed a slide in his support. The banners read (L and C) "Only Netanyahu will protect Jerusalem" and "Warning! '67 borders ahead". REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (

The Political Soccer Match of All Time

Ten hours before voting booths opened on Monday night, Ben Caspit went to the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa.

No match-up in Israel is more political than this: Beitar Jerusalem playing HaPo’el Tel Aviv. It’s the “Hill People” vs. the “Beach People.” It’s the faceoff between Israel’s two capitals: the spiritual vs. the secular; the conservative and narrow-minded vs. the liberal and open-minded. They’re coming head to head in Jaffa Stadium on the eve of these elections. It’s the red banners of HaPo’el, identified with the Israeli left, facing off against the yellow and black of Beitar, which has become a symbol of the right and the Likud. This is the ultimate political sport in Israel. 

Such charged matches have taken place before, either on the eve of elections, or in the days immediately after them. The most notable match of all took place in May 1999, when HaPo’el Tel Aviv faced Beitar Jerusalem in the Cup Finals two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud were defeated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Labor Party. The euphoria and sense of jubilation on the left rubbed off on the players in the field. HaPo’el won the game and the Cup. 

The mood was very different yesterday on HaPo’el’s home field. There wasn’t really much tension. It was a run-of-the-mill game, and the fact that everyone knew who would win in tomorrow’s elections influenced what happened. As it turns out, everyone knows who will win the National Soccer League championship too (and it’s neither HaPo’el nor Beitar), so all that remained for the players in that stadium named for the Bloomfield brothers was to spar over the leftovers, their dignity, and any lingering accolades. That’s exactly what it looked like too.

The “Age of Professionalism” in Israeli soccer has seriously diminished the political allegiances of the various teams. The players no longer play on behalf of what their teams represent. They play for the money instead. But the crowd still thrives on the atmosphere of yesteryear. Beitar supporters waved the Israeli flag and the team’s menorah symbol. HaPo’el’s supporters insisted that, “We represent HaPo’el, not Israel.” The bottom line is that you won’t find two such opposites as HaPo’el Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem anywhere in Israel today.

The former, based in Tel Aviv, is led by an Arab Israeli captain and is raising future generations of talented Arab Israeli athletes. On the latter team, from Jerusalem, Arabs are all but barred from playing. Beitar is a team with a conspicuous religious and national iconography. HaPo’el is a frustratingly secular team with a diverse fan base of struggling day laborers from Jaffa and sophisticated high- tech entrepreneurs from the surrounding suburbs. It’s a Jewish team with quite a few Arab players. Beitar fans are fervent nationalists, whose boos during a moment of silence for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were deafening. HaPo’el’s fans are humanists, with a significant anarchist core waving flags of Che Guevara. There is even the occasional Satanic symbol or two. Beitar’s home crowd is warm, colorful, and sometimes violent, often stained by blunt racism. These are fans who take no prisoners. They see their red-clad rivals as a bitter enemy that landed here from out of nowhere, and now, all they want to do is to hand Jerusalem over to the Arabs. On the other side are those red-clad fans who are particularly fond of a song that goes “Jerusalem isn’t in Europe. Jerusalem is in Jordan.” As far as they are concerned, this song has everything in it, including the obvious insinuation that Beitar hasn’t made it to the European leagues in years… and, of course, that Jerusalem isn’t really part of Israel either. It could be handed over to Hamas tomorrow morning, as far as they are concerned.

Yesterday’s backdrop was much more colorful than the game itself. In that sense it served as a perfect portrait of the election campaign. The game was boring and sloppy, without any brilliant plays. Beitar and the right won in the end, but it was only by chance. It was nothing to write home about. They won mainly because of their rival’s mistakes. HaPo’el suffered from a crisis of leadership, and the players barely even passed the ball. These two teams filled their political role to a T. All signs seem to indicate that these will be results tomorrow too, in the national elections.

Apathy and Alienation in the Arab Street

Shlomi Eldar spoke to voters in Umm al-Fahm on the morning of Election Day.

I went to a city considered to be the barometer of Israeli Arab society within the Green Line. There I was in Umm al-Fahm, where the Sons of the Village and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement were founded, a town that is home to 55,000 people. As I entered the city, the desperate efforts by Arab parties participating in this election to get people out to vote were already apparent. Even the billboard at the entrance to the city, with its photos of Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben-Ari of the extreme rightwing Otzmah LeYisrael (Strength to Israel) party alongside former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (who once suggested that this Israeli city be included in the territories of the Palestinian Authorities for “demographic reasons”), wasn’t much help. It was a glum, ominous sign in black and white, with an Arabic slogan that read, “Look who you’re abandoning it to [“it” meaning the Knesset, S.E.]. The situation calls for unity,” signed Ra’am – Balad.

If they really wanted to, Israeli Arabs could bring about a real political turnaround in the country. They have 20 seats in their pockets, theoretically at least, and this could change everything. But it seems like that’s not what they really want. There’s no election-day fever here. The prevailing feeling is one of apathy and alienation.

Both the Islamic Movement and the Sons of the Village have widespread support in this town. They are both boycotting the elections. The Sons of the Village, a political movement founded in the mid-1970s, does not believe in a two-state solution. They would rather see a democratic secular state, where Arabs and Jews live side by size. As far as they are concerned, the Knesset signifies the very existence and sovereignty of Israel as a Jewish State, so elections run counter to the group’s worldview.

The consequence of this is a rare instance of cooperation between Islamists and secularists, leaving Arab residents of Israel who don’t support either of those movements bewildered and confused. 

Nor are the Arab members of Knesset especially attractive in Umm al-Fahm. Sheikh Imad Mahmad, a member of the city council for the Islamic Movement, told me, “I couldn’t decide and hesitated until now. But why should I vote anyway? I once voted for Yitzhak Rabin, who did a lot for the Israeli Arabs. Then people started mocking him for relying on the Arabs. Don’t we matter too? So, who should I vote for? [MK Ahmad] Tibi? [MK Haneen] Zoabi? Who actually gets to see them up close? What have they ever done for us?” 

I follow along as Attorney Raslan Mahajne and his son Khaled, also an attorney, argue over the right to vote. The older Mahajne tries to convince his son to take advantage of this right, but Khaled stands his ground and insists on boycotting the election. “I have no one to vote for,” he says. “The Arab members of Knesset don’t do anything for our sector. They make a lot of noise and end up doing nothing.”


Israeli Arabs in Umm al-Fahm were reluctant to take part in the elections. Photo by Shlomi Eldar

So that’s how it looks on the ground. The polling stations are practically empty. Some 1,000 potential voters are registered at one of them, in the Ibn Khaldun Elementary School, but there were just four of them there, and they all looked bored standing in line. If anything interesting at all was happening, it was actually among the staff at the polling station. Imagine this: representatives of the Arab parties were sitting alongside observers with yarmulkes from Likud Beiteinu, and everyone was having a pleasant chat about the events of the day. “Ask them how nicely we treated them,” the Arab residents tell me proudly. A man with a yarmulke smiles and says, “The truth is, I got a wonderful welcome.”

Then the owner of a shop selling pens, a man named Ali Jabaria (al-Jaafari) grabbed me for a homily of sorts devoted exclusively to chastising his fellow citizens and expressing the sheer desperation he feels about the pattern of low voter turnout. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “I just don’t understand. They have the right to vote, to make changes, and they boycott the elections. Wouldn’t they be out there demonstrating if they had their right to vote taken away from them? Wouldn’t they be burning tires and rioting? The whole Arab world would be up in arms. They have the right to vote, and yet they boycott the elections.”

Jabaria then adds, “That won’t help Liberman, Netanyahu, or the others. This is my country and it’s my obligation to vote and have an impact.” But Jabaria is in the minority in his town.

As I was leaving Umm al-Fahm, one of the candidates’ brothers whispered in my ear, “Maybe it will change a bit later this evening. People will come out to vote, but they’ll do it quietly, hoping that the darkness will hide the fact that they are doing something they have no reason to be proud of.”

The New Immigrant Vote

Akiva Eldar visited a polling Station in Shikun Vatikim neighborhood, Netanya.

I spent a long time watching the dark-skinned man in a baseball cap handing out Likud Beiteinu ballots to the people coming to the Polling Station in Shikun Vatikim, Netanya. That middle-aged man of Ethiopian origin reminded me of someone from the distant past. Then it all clicked. It was his broad smile and the wink he gave me when he answered whether he’s also voting for Bibi (“That’s a secret, isn’t it?”). It took me back almost 50 years, to Ephraim Kishon’s timeless classic “Salah Shabati.” For anyone who missed the reruns of this extraordinary film starring Chaim Topol, I should tell you that Salah Shabati (his name in Hebrew sounds like “Sorry for coming”) was a new immigrant from Morocco in the 1950s who was sent to a transit camp with his large family. While there, he quickly learned the rules of the game that is Israel’s democracy and became a multi-party voting contractor. In one of the film’s best-known scenes, we see him on Election Day trying to stuff the ballot box with a stack of ballots that he collected from all the political wheelers and dealers he encountered.

Then I met a young Ethiopian who told me his name was David. He was dressed in black and wore a wide-brimmed hat typical of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews. He walked over to a group of traditionally-dressed women from his community and greeted them with, “Hello, you righteous ladies” in Hebrew, before switching to Amharic. Once they turned toward the gate of the Shahal School, he was kind enough to translate what he told them. “I explained to them that Maran (the Hebrew acronym for “Our teacher and master,” used for Rabbi Ovadiah Yoseph, A.E.), said that it is a big mitzvah to vote for [religious party] Shas.” David interrupted himself before he could finish and went over to greet an elderly woman with a colorful headscarf. “Pious woman,” he said to her, “did you know that you must only vote for Shas?” David’s face dropped when he saw that she was already holding ballots for the Likud Beiteinu and Labor parties. “See that?” he said, turning back to me. “They forgot to bring me ballots.”

Dorit, an observer at the polling station, shared a few of her impressions of what had been going on there till noon. By then about 26% of the voters had already cast their ballots. “It’s not bad compared to previous elections,” she said. “I’m the only volunteer here. The other members of the polling station committee are the supervisor and two women who represent the Likud and Kadima parties. They all get paid. By the way, neither of those two women is voting for those parties. The younger woman, who is 26, has social views more in line with Meretz, but she says she couldn’t vote for a party that is willing to give back Ariel.”

A young Ethiopian in a black yarmulke is standing behind the curtain now. He just stands there and stands there. Finally he peeks out and asks if he has to put his ballot in the envelope. Where was he in civics class? A woman of about 60 takes her envelope and asks, “Where are the papers?” (meaning the ballots, A.E.). On her way to the ballot box she says, “Tell Bibi that this box is a disgrace. There are more modern things today. Even the Arabs have them. What’s with this box? It’s shameful.” A young Ethiopian woman with parted, striped hair and a shirt that exposes both her midriff and a generous amount of cleavage giggles and hands a folded ballot to the supervisor of the polling station. She takes her envelope, goes behind the curtain, leaves the envelope there, and comes back with the folded ballot. They send her back behind the curtain again.

An elderly, deaf Ethiopian man arrives at the polling station with his son. It takes some pantomime and considerable drama to explain to him what to do. Finally! He has a ballot in his pocket, but he still doesn’t realize that he’s supposed to put it in an envelope. Very confused by the whole process, he eventually slips out. He is followed by a large group of elderly Ethiopians, who were apparently brought here together. Based on how they reach into their pockets, it seems like all came equipped with their own ballots. The date of birth on most of their ID cards reads 00/00/0000. One of them arrived in Israel less than a year ago. He will also be influencing what happens here in the coming years. Maybe in another 50 years his grandson will be a member of Knesset, or maybe even a minister for Shas. Just like Salah Shabati’s grandson.

The Tel Aviv Bubble

Mazal Mualem reports from Café Tamar, a political café, bohemian and left-leaning.

As I made my way to Café Tamar, I passed by Rothschild Boulevard, right in the center of the city. It was at this exact spot that the tent protests erupted about a year and a half ago. A warm spring sun washed over the boulevard and the crowds of people on it. There was an impressive contingent of young couples with baby strollers, passing a few stands put up by the various parties.

It was not at all surprising that on the morning of the current elections, right-wing parties had no presence on Rothschild Boulevard. There was no Likud Beiteinu, no HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), even though it is trending in this election and no Shas either.

On the other hand, representatives of the Labor Party, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Hadash and Balad were all handing out colorful campaign leaflets. The most conspicuous stand belonged to the Eretz Hadasha party, whose leader, Attorney Eldad Yaniv, was once a political strategist for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Now he is asking for the power to expose government corruption — the very corruption in which he once participated.

A few meters away, on the street itself, I see a line stretching out of the Bar Ilan Religious High School. That’s where the polling station is. I felt a slight sense of excitement at this surprising sight of people actually coming to fulfill their civic duty. Despite all the predictions of particularly low voter turnout, the Tel Aviv bubble was stirring from its lethargy. Later, I heard that high voter turnout was recorded throughout the country. That could lead to some surprises in these elections which seemed so predictable and boring, until Tuesday morning, at least.

When I got to Café Tamar I found that the tables were all packed, and Shenkin Street, where the café is located, was unusually crowded. If there really is a Tel Aviv bubble, it would be here at Café Tamar. This is a political café, bohemian and left-leaning. The owner is 87-year-old Sarah Stern, who served in the Palmach (underground) with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His portrait has been hanging on the door ever since he was assassinated.

This morning, Sarah is quite contemplative. She hasn’t gone to vote yet and she confides in me that for the first time in her life she is considering not casting her ballot for the Labor Party. She has a problem with Shelly Yachimovich, who tried to conceal Rabin’s political legacy. Even the fact that Sarah’s own granddaughter, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, competed for a place on the Labor Party list (but did not make it to a realistic slot) doesn’t help. Ayelet pops into the café to see if her grandmother went to vote yet, but Sarah from Café Tamar still has her doubts.

If Shelly Yachimovich would come to this café, which she once occasioned with her close friend, the Likud minister Gideon Saar, she would hear about the mounting frustration among what is known as the “Israeli Left.” The Labor Party has very few supporters left in Café Tamar. Its steady clientele has migrated to the farthest reaches of the left on the Israeli political spectrum, so far left that compared to them, even an unmistakably left-wing party like Meretz would be considered moderate. Of the approximately 30 people sitting there, eight voted for Balad (an Arab party), two voted for Ra’am (also an Arab party), another two voted Hadash, and the waitress and another patron voted for Eretz Hadasha. In the bubble that is Café Tamar, the Israeli Left is more desperate than ever before. It has no leaders. There is no address where people can turn. And so it protests in its own way.

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