Fear and loathing on the Israel campaign trail in 2015


Published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine, February 27, 2015

There are only three MKs at the Knesset on February 4. It is Tu Bishvat, the tree-planting festival, but that isn’t the reason for the paucity of legislators. With the election just around the corner and nothing to do, most are at home with their families or getting ready for various campaign events across the country. Of the three present, only one is running in the next election: Dov Lipman, No. 17 on the Yesh Atid list and the Knesset’s only native English speaker. He drew a buzz in the last election due to his haredi background and demands to reform the ultra-Orthodox culture in Israel. “I still come into the Knesset in the morning to check emails,” he explains. “People are still writing to us as MKs.”

Twenty-six parties have submitted lists to run for the Knesset. The higher threshold of 3.25 percent this election means that parties need more votes to get into the legislature, which has prompted two Arab parties and the Jewish-Arab Hadash to form a joint list. Shas has split in two, with Eli Yishai forming the Yahad party; and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon is running with his own party, Koolanu, hoping to catch voters who yearn for a new centrist faction. In so doing, he has taken the wind out of the sails of Yesh Atid, the big surprise of the 2013 elections.

Also, in a surprise move, the union between Labor head Isaac Herzog and Hatnua head Tzipi Livni under the banner of the Zionist Union is offering voters not only a Center-Left government, but two premiers for the price of one; the two plan to split the four-year term. As the election season moves into its final weeks, we set out to see what candidates are facing on the road, from morning to night.

9 a.m.
Jerusalem, the Knesset
Dov Lipman – Yesh Atid

Dov Lipman’s office is immaculate, adorned with college degrees and other memorabilia. He takes down a framed letter from a supporter thanking him for his work to increase haredi employment, saying, “One of my fears is that all our work could be undone.” He notes that his party successfully passed a law to draft haredi men and has also increased employment in the sector. “We took funding from yeshivas and kollels, and there is a 300% increase in haredim turning to [the government] for work; we get 500 resumés per month of people who want to go to work.”

Lipman with his team of volunteers

Lipman with his team of volunteers

Some people see Yesh Atid as a fading flavor of the month – popular in the last election, but losing its appeal and polling at only 11 seats. “[Party leader] Yair Lapid learned from the mistakes of past parties and he built a party with real infrastructure; we have branches with activists everywhere. That is what builds a party for the long term,” argues Lipman. Aware that his own seat is in danger, he has been pounding the pavement. “I was in Ma’aleh Adumim, Neveh Daniel, Modi’in and Jerusalem in recent days,” he says, adding that as opposed to last time, more people recognize him as an MK and he feels more confident campaigning. Lipman is also trying to hammer home the importance of having an English speaker in the Knesset, noting there are more Anglos in Israel than other minority groups such as Ethiopians or Druse. “I think this office served the English-speaking community.”

While Lipman turns to his computer and I leave to explore the deserted halls of the Knesset, Nissim Ze’ev comes walking past the cafeteria. Like David Rotem and David Tsur, who are also in the building, he won’t be in the Knesset. Are they here to tidy up last-minute business, or to take it all in one last time?

Miri Regev's caravan (Seth J. Frantzman)

Miri Regev’s caravan (Seth J. Frantzman)

10 a.m.
Rosh Ha’ayin
Miri Regev – Likud

Rosh Ha’ayin is a sprawling town of 35,000, near the Green Line in the narrow waist of Israel. It abuts Kafr Kasim, a large Arab village, and over the years there has been tension over the decibel level of the muezzin’s calls to prayer. In 2011, then-Likud Beytenu MK Anastasia Michaeli tried to pass a bill to set limits on the noise. Among the supporters was town resident Miri Regev, the fiery Likudnik. Her home sits at the end of a bucolic street in the new upper neighborhood of the town, with a view over the coastal plain.

On February 5 it is bustling, as supporters gather to join her on a tour of the country. A caravan latched to an Audi Q7 relaxes in the parking lot; a dozen media people have come to see her off. Relaxed around her supporters, she says she is taking the campaign to “the people” because she feels most comfortable in the field with the voters. The caravan is somewhat of a gimmick, as no one would be riding in it. One man inquires if it has a real toilet; “Not for No. 2,” another tells him. “I am happy to be the presenter for the Likud, we are the natural home for voters,” says Regev. Her supporters hold up a large Israeli flag and she asks why the left-wing parties, and candidates like the Zionist Union’s Stav Shaffir and Merav Michaeli, are not also waving the flag.

A magnetic media personality (Seth J. Frantzman)

A magnetic media personality (Seth J. Frantzman)

The politician is a former IDF brigadier- general from the poverty-stricken town of Kiryat Gat. In the Likud primaries she came in fifth, one of several women across the political landscape who won big this year in the primaries – including Shaffir, Bayit Yehudi’s Ayelet Shaked and longtime Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On.

Regev touched a controversial nerve in 2012 when she compared African migrants to a “cancer,” later apologizing for using the term. This painted her as a radical rightist, but none of that is on display as the press scrum mills around her spacious and immaculate living room. “Who wants something to drink – water, coffee?” she banters with those gathered.

Caravans are not a normal site in Israel – especially politicized ones – unlike in the UK or US, where politicians literally need to drive the “campaign trail,” living in a tour bus of sorts for weeks; Regev’s novel approach will set her apart. Having it pulled by an Audi is also a contrast. Her plan is to drive all the way to Kiryat Shmona in the North, speak with Arab Christians near Nazareth and with voters of the Pri Hagalil factory. Located in Hatzor Haglilit, the troubled factory’s 220 workers were sent on “forced vacation” in early January after Pri Hagalil, one of Israel’s largest canneries, ran into renewed financial troubles.

Smiling and handing out hats and flags to supporters, she says the Likud is the only party that can bring security to the country. “There will be complaints along the way and we can do better, but our security is due to Likud.” She mocks Lapid’s Yesh Atid for having so many mandates in the last election but accomplishing so little. One supporter, wearing a Likud shirt, keeps shouting in the background, “There is none like Miri in the world”; periodically, her groupies burst into a fervent “Am Yisrael Hai,” the People of Israel lives.

Regev gives a short, impromptu talk to Yediot Aharonot and a little tour of the caravan. It presents a contrast to the giant campaign buses in the US, with dozens of volunteers, permanent media stationed in the back, and first-class dining and drinking facilities. There will be no “fear and loathing-style” shenanigans on this one. And then she is off, at 10:30 a.m., for the 1:30 p.m. meeting in Kiryat Shmona’s market. In 1984, when Shimon Peres visited the working-class town, he was pelted with tomatoes. But there are no tomatoes for Regev; she is greeted with smiles.

The next day she goes to Tel Aviv’s Shuk Hatikva at 11 a.m., where she is again greeted with warm applause and smiles. Young people hold up signs saying “We young people will stop voting for balloon parties,” evidently referring to parties that are full of hot air and come and go – perhaps pointing to Yesh Atid. Shuk Hatikva is the same place she had gained notoriety in 2012 and 2013 for supporting residents’ anger over African migrants, who had become a common sight in south Tel Aviv and were perceived as a threat and burden on the already poor area.

4 p.m.
Beit Shemesh, Big Fashion Shopping Center
Dov Lipman – Yesh Atid

An elderly Ethiopian man paws through a trash can at the entrance to the fancy new Big Fashion shopping center in Beit Shemesh. It is a town undergoing transformation: Over at the Aroma cafe, almost all the customers are English speakers; a few kilometers away are some of the most Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel. This is a town split between haredi voters, a haredi mayor, and its national- religious and secular residents. It is a town of contrasts, between the extreme poverty of new immigrants and the wealth of other immigrants from the US.

Lipman, in a black suit and black kippa, has just gotten back from Tel Aviv, where he spent the day speaking to constituents by phone. “I called 30 people today and 10 said they are with us. In an irony, one man said he will vote for [the current prime minister, the Likud’s Benjamin] Netanyahu, ‘because he knows where to put the ministers in the government.’” Yesh Atid, in Lipman’s view, is frustrated that Lapid was set up as a fall guy. In the Finance Ministry he became the central figure for any complaints over taxes or a struggling middle class. In a fiery budget dispute between Netanyahu and Lapid, Netanyahu dissolved the government, sending the country to early elections. Lipman still keeps the proposed budget in his Knesset office, a relic of a bygone failure.

“We had a buzz at headquarters today, more than 100 mostly young people working there.” says Lipman, who is confident the electorate does not want the next government to make a deal with haredi parties and “turn back the clock” on the work he has done. “A lot of people on the phone appreciated all that we accomplished.” The volunteers for Yesh Atid are an eclectic mix. Several Russian speakers arrive and try to speak Yiddish with Lipman. They obviously think a black-jacketed haredi Jew, as Lipman appears to be, will speak Yiddish – but he doesn’t. Then come the “youth volunteers,” a coterie of teenagers with track suits and buzz cuts who look like they just got out of soccer practice.

Sporting earrings and street-wise looks, they accept orders from Lipman’s local manager. “It’s a big change from before when no one knew me, now the volunteers can say ‘Come meet the MK,’” says the candidate.

All the plans seem to hang in the air, as the security guard doesn’t want them in the mall. A short call with Lapid seems to put everyone at ease. Walking down the long indoor avenue of the shopping center, Lipman cubbyholes potential voters. Most are willing to give him their time; but several young voters seem intent on voting either for Netanyahu or Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett. At a juice stand, there is no convincing a young girl, who will be voting for the first time in this election, to submit a ballot for Lapid. Another girl tells him, “Bibi [Netanyahu] cares about our security.” A middle-aged woman complains that although last time she voted for Lapid and even took a picture with him, she felt Beit Shemesh was abandoned. At a shoe store, the saleswomen smile; there is a kind of celebrity status to being greeted by an MK and his dozen supporters. They like Yesh Atid because “it stood up to the haredim.” This is a natural area for Lapid’s message to sink in.

Lipman is confident and passionate. He won’t give up on voters who say no: “Take my card, think about it.” Even for those not voting, he stresses, “You have the responsibility to vote and affect the country.” But he knows it is an uphill struggle. While Yesh Atid still focuses its campaign on the millennial, middle class, hi-tech crowd, Lipman is a little miffed that this election doesn’t seem to be about clear issues. “Netanyahu is campaigning on security, and the Left is campaigning on ‘anything but Bibi.’” Yet he remains optimistic. “People in the street don’t want to talk about the elections, but when you engage them, they will listen. People underestimate Israelis, but people want to talk about their lives. I am proud of that fact.”

The Zionist Union message

The Zionist Union message

4:30 p.m.
Jerusalem, Jaffa Road offices of The Jerusalem Post
Isaac Herzog – Zionist Union

For Zionist Union co-head Herzog, these elections are about reversing Israel’s course over the last decade. Innumerable challenges exist, from carrying through on the demands of the 2011 social justice protests – two of whose leaders are now Labor stalwarts – to revamping US-Israel relations. Prior to a long drive to Nahariya, Herzog pays an hour-long visit to the Post offices to sit down with editors and staff.

The room is cramped, as many want to hear the man who could be the next prime minister articulate his worldview. Affable and casual in a blue suit, minus a tie as is the Israeli custom, Herzog is at ease with this English-speaking audience – a reminder that he went to high school in New York City. For him, there are two major issues facing the Jewish state: “One is internal, we have a changing society and we must recognize the idea of Zionism. It must speak to equality for all and give everyone a sense of well-being in our country, including social justice and far-reaching action.”

The other problem is external, the slow-building exclusion of Israel on the world stage and the country’s conflict with its Western allies. “We have to turn the tide by operating smartly and boldly and building coalitions. Security is not only through the barrel of the gun, but by building regional coalitions and fostering a strategic relationship with the US.” The concept of building on regional issues is one that has been in the media lately, as Jordan confronts Islamic State and the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia brings reminders of the dusting off of the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002, which offered Israel regional recognition in return for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.

When it comes to the Palestinian issue, Herzog defines himself as coming from the more hawkish side of the Zionist Union and says his party is “open and transparent,” noting that Shaffir and Michaeli are both outspoken doves. On religion and state issues he is more ambiguous, arguing that the Zionist Union will cross that bridge after it has triumphed over the Likud and built a governing coalition. There are murmurs after this comment, as some wonder how it is possible that a leader of a major party doesn’t have a clearly articulated program for issues that parties like Yesh Atid have been pressing to change.

A Zionist Union campaign poster

A Zionist Union campaign poster

5:30 p.m.
Tel Aviv, 53 Yigal Allon Street
Party Headquarters – Zionist Union

The cars are backed up in a long traffic jam on the Ayalon Highway at rush hour, as the sun dips beneath the towers of the Tel Aviv skyline. Staring down on the wide Yitzhak Sadeh Bridge over the highway is one of Kahlon’s giant election billboards. “Everything for you” it says in Hebrew, with the soft blue frame and black-and-white photos that are Kahlon’s trademark. His party is slipping in the polls, down from 12 seats in December to nine in various polls.

Labor Party headquarters; party insiders complained of disorganization (Seth J. Frantzman)

Labor Party headquarters; party insiders complained of disorganization (Seth J. Frantzman)

But the nadir of his campaign is not brightening eyes over at Zionist Union headquarters, in the massive, sprawling Ashdar 2000 complex. The Zionist Union has taken over parts of floors 2 and 4, and their management offices have been the source of complaint for party activists and insiders. Haaretz writer Yossi Verter described it as a scene of “ponderous management, lack of orientation and confusion.” Part of that may be due to the catacomb structure of the offices, dismal and compartmentalized.

A large orange electronic display reminds comrades it is only 36 days to the election.
Down on floor 2, the activists, volunteers and professionals are more engaged. Older party honchos scroll over lists of kibbutzim and moshavim on an old laptop, trying to divvy up this traditional Labor Party constituency. Several staffers work the phones, dealing with the stable of current MKs and arranging appearances. “We can get you Nachman Shai,” one woman says, referring to the Zionist Union’s No. 20 and current MK.

Some Labor Party supporters have complained that this Zionist Union incarnation has ignored English speakers in Israel. The party has a desk working on English-speaking issues, and fliers in English; but the degree to which it has gotten the message out, four weeks before the election, still evinces some growing pains.

Michal Rosin speaking at a Meretz event in Jerusalem (Seth J. Frantzman)

Michal Rosin speaking at a Meretz event in Jerusalem (Seth J. Frantzman)

7:30 p.m.
Jerusalem, Yoel Moshe Salomon Street,
Tmol Shilshom Cafe
Michal Roisin – Meretz

Michal Roisin first came to the Knesset in January 2013. An outspoken and proud leftist, she served for many years as the director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel. She was born in 1969, and after her army service worked in the political trenches alongside Yael Dayan and Naomi Chazan. When Roisin comes to Jerusalem on the freezing night of February 10, the city is battening down for a storm.

Inside the cozy atmosphere of Tmol Shilshom – an artsy, book-lined restaurant in Jerusalem’s center that often plays host to literary events and is popular among a secular, left-leaning crowd – she is welcomed by an audience of mostly young people, many of them female students from the Hebrew University. Introductions highlight her work on behalf of foreign workers, against sexual harassment and her recognition by the Israel Democracy Institute for her parliamentary work. Her speech focuses on contrasting Meretz, which is polling at around six seats, with the Zionist Union. “Herzog needs to be in the Center and to have us on the Left, a strong [bloc of mandates]; he needs to be involved in issues like [Haneen] Zoabi [and the High Court of Justice deliberations at the time, on barring her from running in the election; she has since been freed to run]. When he goes to the president, he must go to the president with the package of Meretz and the Left – because we are what will bring him to the government.”

Michal Rosin (Seth J. Frantzman)

Michal Rosin (Seth J. Frantzman)

Roisin argues that Israel suffers from a large number of floating centrist voters, which she estimates at more than 15 seats. She notes that these voters, when polled, are not proud of their previous choices – such as voting the now-disbanded Kadima. But “those who vote Meretz, they receive the ideology they voted for… we don’t run away from things we support.” This “you get what you vote for” message is directed against the failures of Yesh Atid. “It bothers me that others threw away their mandates, a party that got 19 and was in charge of the Finance Ministry, and that a smaller party which is extreme can defeat the finance minister.

After two years, what can they say; like [Education Minister and Yesh Atid MK] Shai Piron, who will come here – and he is my friend – but he says he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t it, but every day they could have done reforms.” She is personally pained by the fact that voters are being alienated from the reforms they demand. “The question is what do you vote for [if you vote for the centrist parties]?…You need to vote Meretz to make our party bigger, make a bigger change and put us in the government.”

The audience munches on delectable cheesecake and a soup sampler. Some are veteran Meretz student activists, but others seem like they may be former Hadash voters, who are alienated by the Joint Arab List and considering a leftwing alternative. Roisin tells a story of receiving a latenight call from Moshe Mizrahi, a Labor politician, who asked her, “Why do we do it, why do we go to the Knesset every day to struggle?” For her, it is obvious: The reason Meretz fights a losing battle against what she terms racist and anti- democratic legislation is because when voters hear Meretz questioning the laws, they also begin to ask questions.

Facing questions on women’s rights and the struggle against sexual harassment, with the revelations on February 4 that the seventh-highest-ranking member of the Israel Police was added to the pool of those being investigated for harassment, she says the police need reforms from the “roots” of the culture and system. She argues that many women refrain from complaining about sexual harassment, noting that in the army there are only 300-400 complaints a year. “I think feminism is more than women’s rights: For me it is about being on the Left, not hurting the other, caring about women; it is not just about the white liberal. We are in 2015; we need women from all parts of Israel, every population,” contends Roisin, trying to address the complaint that Meretz is viewed as elitist and does not appeal to voters from poorer Jewish communities, such as Mizrahim and Ethiopians.

Her final message it that it is time to work towards civil marriage, and to look at the issue of public transportation on Shabbat. “When it comes to Yom Kippur and circumcision, these issues are important [to people]; 99% of the country obeys Yom Kippur without a law.” Her point is that having the Orthodox control marriage is not only victimizing 300,000 or so estimated Israelis not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, who end up marrying abroad, but also that it is unnecessary – as even without religious control of marriage, most people would marry in religious ceremonies.

It is time for Israel to address issues like the African migrants and provide solutions, she adds. Referring to a recent controversy over a speech by Bayit Yehudi’s Bennett at a high school, she notes, “It is easy to say Arabs steal cars, and harder to ask about the larger issues.” As the evening wraps up, the activists want to do a tour of the center of the town with balloons and banners, but it is too cold. In any case, Roisin is tired; she has to do the drive home to Petah Tikva and her three children.
Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 11.38.17 AM
8 p.m.
Jerusalem, parlor
meeting at a private residence Michael Oren – Koolanu
(*By Noa Amouyal)
In many ways, Michael Oren’s aliya story is one many olim wish they could emulate. A lone soldier in the ’70s who came to Israel penniless, he steadily worked his way up the diplomatic ladder in the Foreign Ministry, ultimately becoming the country’s ambassador to the US. If there is an aliya jackpot, he’s certainly claimed it. “He’s a true inspiration to all of us who have made aliya or are thinking of making aliya,” enthuses Yoni Mann, host of the parlor meeting showcasing Oren, when introducing the newly minted politician. The rapt audience of Anglos hangs on Oren’s every word as he discusses why he’s running in Kahlon’s Koolanu.

For many Anglos, Kahlon is an unknown entity – which may be a reason Oren is the party’s de facto emissary to Anglos, and is pounding the pavement, showing up at countless panels and parlor meetings and explaining – in English – why Koolanu is the panacea to the country’s many socioeconomic problems. “Our social-economic gaps are in the league of that of Chile and Mexico,” Oren says. Israel, a country that has surpassed France in terms of GDP, is being held hostage by its banks, importers and government bureaucracies, he asserts. “So you have a rich country with poor people; 20% of the people in this country are beneath the poverty line,” stresses Oren. A sound economy and foreign policy go hand in hand, in Oren’s view. A country can’t properly combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement when its economy is in tatters, he maintains – which is why his partnership with Kahlon is a natural fit. Kahlon has given Oren Koolanu’s diplomatic portfolio, and should the party do well come March 17, he hopes to snag the plum role of foreign minister in the next government.

Diplomat that he is, Oren is in his element when addressing the small crowd. But politics is a tough business, and the Israeli public is an even harsher audience – especially when it perceives a foreigner is trying to encroach on the Israeli political scene. Oren witnessed this firsthand when he joined Kahlon in the shuk to press the flesh of “ordinary” Israeli folk. “It’s a fabulous experience, yes, there’s a lot of hummus and kebab, but it’s interacting with Israeli society in a very intimate way,” he says.

After his shuk experience, he did a radio interview where he was taken to task for trying to hard to mingle with the Israeli working-class crowd. “‘You looked a little out of place,’” Oren recalls the interviewer saying. “What was the subtext? ‘You’re Ashkenazi, they’re Sephardi, who are you kidding?’” “I moved here with a backpack and not a grush [cent] to my name. I was a hayal boded [lone soldier]; they let us out on Friday afternoon and I would go from stall to stall for remains of their food so I had something for Shabbat. I know every single stall in that shuk,” Oren hit back, setting the record straight. While rousing, combative experiences like that are par for the course when campaigning, Oren has learned to relish every good and bad moment. “The campaign trail is fascinating; what most attracted me about running for office was being on the campaign trail. It’s proven to be as interesting and inspiring as anticipated,” Oren later tells the Post in a follow-up interview. “Whether it be [wealthy] Sauvignon [sic, Savyon] or [working-class] Acre, actually coming in contact with different segments of the Israeli public is exhilarating,” he rhapsodizes –and staying true to that spirit, Koolanu has been actively courting many disparate segments of the Israeli population.

Oren describes his experience visiting with senior citizens in their late 80s and 90s, only to be barraged with the some of the hardest questions he’s faced yet. “They would say, ‘I liberated Jerusalem, don’t tell me!’” he chuckles. Yet encounters like these leave Oren undeterred: “This is the spirit of Israel.”
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9 p.m.
Jerusalem, Hillel Street,
Alternative Information Center Haneen Zoabi – Joint Arab List Balad MK

Haneen Zoabi is late. It’s been a long day for her, driving all the way to Jerusalem from her home in Nazareth. Ironically, on the same day the Likud’s Regev is meeting with Christian Arabs who want to join the IDF, Zoabi is stepping out of her comfort zone and speaking with left-wing Jewish voters. Zoabi, who is facing a court case – an attempt by other parties, including Labor, to exclude her personally from running – and a long history of controversy, is coming to Jerusalem to assuage the voters. She is part of the controversial Joint Arab List, which has stirred up controversy among Jewish Hadash voters, skeptical of supporting a slate that includes Arab nationalists and Islamists.

Haneen Zoabi (Seth J. Frantzman)

Haneen Zoabi (Seth J. Frantzman)

Packed into a small room on Hillel Street at the Alternative Information Center are veteran Communists, academics, activists and youth. It is standing room only, and as the night wears on, the lack of air conditioning makes the room toasty and pungent. The mustachioed Michel Warschawski, a wellknown Communist and anti-Zionist activist, opens the meeting. “I am a sort of groupie of Haneen,” he confides. “Two-and-a-half years ago we published a book in French about Israeli dissidents.” He says Zoabi has the confident smile of a woman who is secure in herself and is unafraid.

Zoabi speaks for almost two hours, taking numerous questions along the way. “In a democratic country, how did they succeed in turning me into a woman who hates Jews and wants to throw people into the sea?” she asks. She recounts how she was raised in a house where she was taught to respect others and also have pride in herself. “There is room for nationalism, I am 100% Palestinian; there is a political struggle to be a Palestinian woman in a Jewish state. The country says it is for Jews, it says it is not for you.”

Zoabi acknowledges that the Knesset is just one part of a larger struggle for Arab rights in Israel. “Fifty percent don’t vote because they don’t believe in Israeli democracy, and don’t accept it.” She notes that the Joint Arab List has been forecast to get around 15 mandates, up from the current 11 they have separately. But with 20% of the electorate being Arab, the feeling is they are far short of the 24 mandates they want. One aspect of confronting disillusionment among Arabs is to keep the Jewish voters of Hadash with them – but it is clear these voters are nonplussed.

When asked how a Jew who believes in coexistence and is non-sectarian or Communist could vote for a list that includes voices which diverge greatly from that platform, Zoabi states emphatically that they have common interests. “This is a historic moment… There is no list that is fully democratic which opposes occupation… I don’t understand why people don’t see that; we are 100% for equality and against the occupation.” Zoabi spends time talking about Arab women, saying that Jews should support building increased infrastructure in Arab villages so women can work. She points to her collaboration with Jewish MKs to pass laws raising the minimum marriage age and to include more women in local councils. “But you are right, we didn’t do enough to work with Jews. I don’t know enough Mizrahi activists, and I think they don’t know where we stand and didn’t approach Balad.”

For many of those present, just to meet and hear Zoabi – the sort of bête noire of Israeli politics – is fascinating. One girl asks for a selfie; others are genuinely attentive. When the night winds down at around 10:30, Zoabi is obviously fatigued. She has been furiously scribbling the questions she received onto large cards; she gathers them up and says her goodbyes. Now, it would be another two hours back to Nazareth. “Why don’t we see the Joint Arab List campaigning?” wonders one of those present. “We just sealed the agreement on the 23rd, you will see us next week among the voters,” replies Zoabi.

On Saturday, February 14, the party held its official launch festival in Nazareth, attended by thousands of potential voters. Zoabi attends, despite the Central Elections Committee having banned her from running on February 12. She hopes the court will overturn the ban, as it did in December 2012 during the last elections – which it indeed does, on February 17.

V15 volunteers unload a van in Jerusalem; many other players besides the parties are having a role in this election (Seth J. Frantzman)

V15 volunteers unload a van in Jerusalem; many other players besides the parties are having a role in this election (Seth J. Frantzman)

8:30 p.m.
Jerusalem, Arlosoroff Street,
parlor meeting at a private residence Ayelet Shaked – Bayit Yehudi

The room is packed to the brim. Seats have been arranged throughout a small living room, and a couch bears down on a back wall; every manner of awkward chair had been pressed into service. A table at the front with what seems like slim pickings of edibles is picked clean. Ayelet Shaked is already in the middle of an hour-long discussion with prospective voters of Bayit Yehudi. “No apologies” has been the campaign slogan of its aggressively modern leader Naftali Bennett. A few months ago he was shining in the polls, but now his party may be hitting an all-time low.

It had been garnering estimates as high as 16 mandates, up from its current 11, but is slipping back towards its current numbers – and Shaked is candid with her supporters about this weakening. Nevertheless, this party of mostly national- religious voters will likely be the third-largest in the Knesset. Shaked is often pigeonholed as the “young, secular face of the Jewish Home.”

A parlour meeting (Seth J. Frantzman)

A parlour meeting (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Forward described her as a “Tel Aviv mom… selling the far Right.” But being a mother didn’t come up at this parlor meeting in a ground-floor apartment on Arlosoroff Street. Shaked shoots down any notions that she is a secular fig leaf; on the contrary, she came in first in the party’s primaries, hardly a fig-leaf place. Her comments are off-the-record and she asks if anyone is recording the session, though this is supposed to be an open discussion with voters. There is hardly anyone over 40 in the room, which is about equally split between knitted-kippa young professionals and secular people. The big concern of these voters is why not vote for the Likud – what are the ideological differences, and is there a different stand on economics? Just like Meretz has been plugging away at the concept that if you want a real left-wing government you must vote for them, Bayit Yehudi’s message is the same. The concept is to keep the Likud from forming a centrist coalition with the Left. “If our party is not strong enough, then Netanyahu will form a left-wing government,” Shaked asserts.

Some of those gathered are angry about higher taxes; others are annoyed that Bennie Begin, a Likud dove known for his independent streak, has been taken onboard by Netanyahu. They are proud that Bayit Yehudi passed a law to prevent the release of terrorists last November.

As the evening winds down, Shaked is ushered out; this is her natural constituency, but she is in a hurry. The audience, for its part, seems pleased – the people have wrestled with the candidate, and gotten answers to their questions. Shaked notes that for her, this election is different than the last time – when the party was new. “This time, there is criticism and you need to prove yourself. We are working very hard and we are seeing strength among young people,” she says. By the end of the election, Shaked envisions getting back to their goal of 16-17 mandates.

Midnight Jerusalem

On the drive back from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a detour makes us get on Road 40 towards Ramle. It’s late, and we exit the highway to get coffee and water. On one of the side streets, not far from Ramle Prison, is a large Shas election sign: “You are not invisible,” it declares. It is a reminder of its much-lauded ad showing caregivers and cleaners earning minimum wage in Israel, which the left-leaning website +972 calls “a challenge to the Left and Right.” But the embers of the social justice protest have burned out. Nearby is a Yisrael Beytenu sign proclaiming, “Umm el-Fahm to Palestine; Ariel to Israel,” referring to the large Israeli-Arab town that abuts the Green Line, and the large Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. But Liberman’s party is also slipping in the polls, down to as few as five mandates; Umm el-Fahm won’t be going anywhere soon.

An Yisrael Beitnu campaign poster

An Yisrael Beitnu campaign poster

It is a reminder how agnostic the Israeli public is on a litany of issues facing the country. Almost everyone interviewed feels there are too many elections, too often, and too many parties from which to choose. Uninspired, apathetic, unenthusiastic, cynical, disillusioned, disenchanted, taken for granted and most of all, disappointed – this is the reaction of average voters to the current election cycle. At The Barrel bar on downtown Jerusalem’s Hillel Street, the mostly male crowd is still thick on Saturday night. An English- speaking couple takes a brief break from their canoodling (it is Valentine’s Day, after all) to answer the question: Would they be voting in the election? “To tell you the truth, I voted Liberman, I voted Bennett, now what? There’s no one to vote for.”


2 responses to “Fear and loathing on the Israel campaign trail in 2015

  1. The average term of the Knesset is hovering around 3.5 years. The elections are frequent in Israel, but not as frequent as it is perceived perhaps.

    But nevertheless, this campaign will perhaps lead to surprising results. The higher threshold might make voters go for a larger party at the ballot. The forecasts in such a situation are even less accurate than usually in Israel, and it may lead to a Knesset that is radically different than expected based on the polls. The surprising results should not come as a surprise really.

  2. Pingback: A night to remember? Israel elections 2015 | Seth J. Frantzman·

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