UPDATED AT 4:25 p.m.
It’s Election Day in Israel.
As 5,881,696 voters have the opportunity to go to the polls, the biggest question is if Benjamin Netanyahu can maintain his grip on power — or if the left-center Zionist Union can grab power and possibly take the Jewish state in a different direction.
The Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff is traveling the length and breadth of the country — from West Bank settlements that are right-wing strongholds to liberal enclaves and suburban subdivisions. She brings us the people and stories that will determine who will be Israel’s next leader.
This morning, Wael Mahamid received a mass text message from the Likud party with the warning to its right wing base that Israeli Arabs were going to the polls in record numbers.
But Mahamid only laughed at the message, which was sent out to millions of Israelis. After all, he is working for just that outcome.
“It was very funny,” he said. “This message, it gives us hope. It gives us more motivation to work hard.”
Mahamid, a 43-year-old history teacher, is the manager for the Jaffa headquarters for Joint List, which is made up of four Arab parties in Israel: Hadash, the Jewish-Arab communist party, Ra’am, an Islamist group whose base is in southern Israel; and Ta’al and Balad, two nationalist groups. The four groups joined for the first time this year in order to overcome Israel’s new voter threshold which mandates that parties must garner 3.25 percent of the vote, or about 4 seats, to enter the Knesset. Pollsters predict that the list could get as many as 15 seats for Israeli’s Arab public.
But at around 8:00 pm on election night, with just two hours until the polls closed, Joint List volunteers were concerned about the prospect of low voter turnout among Arab Israelis. At the List’s Jaffa base, in a warehouse across the street from a park, activists checked their cell phones and updated Facebook. A TV blared election updates on a Hebrew station. On the walls were handwritten signs in Arabic and Hebrew: “Peace for two nations.”
Silan Dallal, a Jewish activist with the List, cheered when another volunteer told her that the percentage of voters went up a point, to 57 percent from 56 percent of eligible Arab Israelis. That was still 10 points lower than one prediction, from a study commissioned by the Abraham Fund for coexistence in Israel.
Dallal said that the prime minister himself was to blame. If Arab Israelis thought there were “buses and buses” of people voting, maybe they would feel their vote wasn’t needed after all.
“If the unification doesn’t bring any difference, people are going to be much more devastated and desperate that it didn’t work because they waited for so long for it to happen,” she said.
Another two activists, Rola Agbaria and Itamar Haritan-Reiner, decided to launch an impromptu get-out-the vote effort. Walking on Jaffa’s busy Yefet Street, Agbaria asked a group of mechanics fixing a motorcycle if they had voted.
Elias Ashar, a 25-year-old, said that no, he hadn’t. Why should he? The leaders are taking care of themselves and not him.
“This party scares the fascist right,” Agbaria said. She said that she was planning on boycotting the elections too, but the unification of the parties was a “historic event” and she couldn’t sit it out.
“We Arabs are treated like dogs,” Ashar countered. He said that French immigrants buy property in Jaffa for millions, while he, a local, could barely afford to make ends meet.
“Fifteen seats in the list will change this reality,” said Agbaria.
Finally, Ashar relented and got into Agbaria’s car. She drove him to a nearby polling place as he joked that he would vote for Green Leaf, Israel’s marijuana party. Agbaria and Haritan-Reiner waited as Ashar cast his vote.
He emerged with the white card that proved he had voted for the Joint List. It was his first time voting.
How was it? “Good.”
In Israel, election day is a holiday. And in Tel Aviv, voters traditionally hit the beach after they go to the polls, whether they vote for the right or left or anything in between.
“The day started with coffee, very early, then we went to vote, and then we came to the beach to relax,” said Sagi, a 39-year-old startup worker with a shaved head and sunglasses who was sipping on a Goldstar beer on the beach with his cousin, Lior. The cousins asked not to include their last names for privacy reasons. “Israelis need a day off after we choose.”
Gordon Beach, in north Tel Aviv, was packed with visitors, even though it wasn’t quite beach weather. Teenagers smoked hookah on blankets while people played volleyball and ping pong in the sand. Unlike urban Tel Aviv, nary a political poster was in sight.
Sagi voted for Naftali Bennett, of the far right Jewish Home party. “Why? I believe in his way.”
“He wants to kill Arabs!” said Lior.
“Don’t say that!” said Sagi. And then, about Lior: “He’s from the left, you see.”
It was true: Lior’s vote went to Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union. “Why? Because of his name, it’s easy to pronounce: ‘Bougie.’ And second of all, he loves Arabs,” he joked. “I think we need a change. I don’t really have a good explanation.”
“I rest my case,” said Sagi. “They don’t have a good explanation.”
Further down the beach, Martina Bialek, another Herzog supporter sat with her friend Or Amar, 21, who voted for Meretz. Bialek, a 23-year-old social media editor who came to Israel from Argentina explained why her vote went to the Zionist Union. “Well, it’s funny. See, the first time I voted in Israel I voted for Bibi,” she said. But after Israel’s summer war with Gaza, her view on the prime minister soured. “I voted right and it wasn’t what I expected. I wanted a change and I thought Herzog was the closest to my views.”
What did she hope for Israel’s future?
“I don’t think peace will come at the moment,” said Amar. “There are people in Israel who don’t get human rights. There should be less of a focus on security than on quality of life.”
Nearby, Magal Harziv had come to the beach to let his dog dry off in the sun. He had just given it a bath. Harziv, a 26-year-old engineering student, was also a Herzog supporter. “In Hebrew, we say ‘Just not Bibi.’ Rak lo Bibi,” he said. “The society in which we live — we have a huge cost of living. There is a big feeling of no hope, no future.”
“We are craving a change.”
For his friend, 26-year-old Amir Egber, part of the problem was that election day is a day off. He works in the family business importing and exporting security systems, and he had to pay his employees for the free day.
“To vote it takes five minutes. I don’t know why we have to take the whole day.”
In Beit Hakerem a leafy, historically left-leaning neighborhood in West Jerusalem, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and its standing with the United States was driving voters to the ballot box.
Voter after voter said they had hope that a new government would bring peace and prosperity — and end Netanyahu’s grip on power.
“I think it’s very important for our country that there will be peace negotiations. We need two states for two people,” said Nurit, 44, who declined to give her last name because she works for the Israeli government. “Netanyahu is doing a very bad job of guiding our foreign relations with the United States and other countries.”
Standing in the parking lot of a high school polling place, Nurit said that she cast her vote for the Zionist Union. “I believe they can do it better,” she said of negotiations. “I’m not sure, but they have a chance to do it differently.”
Another government worker who declined to give her name for the same reason, also supported Labor leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union coalition. In the past, she voted for the centrist Kadima Party. “I’m sure that something will move with an agreement with the Palestinians,” she said. “I am very hopeful.”
At lunchtime, voters streamed into the high school, across from a Domino’s Pizzeria. The fence outside the school was plastered with posters from parties right to left: Yisrael Beitenu, Likud, Kulanu, Zionist Union, and Meretz. “Vote for Lieberman!” a young woman in sunglasses screamed through a rolled up poster tube with a photo of Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman.
Like many parts of Jerusalem, Beit Hakerem, once a secular bastion of the arts, has grown increasingly ultra-Orthodox in recent years. Secular voters on the street said they were voting to keep the ultra-Orthodox out of the government — with some making surprising choices.
Amir Aharoni, a 35-year-old software engineer for Wikipedia, said that he voted for Likud because the Herzog would need the support of the ultra-Orthodox to form a coalition, and he wants to keep religion out of government. In the past, he voted for far left Meretz.
“The parties are all really awful,” he said. “It was a silly strategic calculation. If I vote Likud it makes it the lowest chance for the Haredi parties will be in.”
Aharoni said he didn’t believe Netanyahu’s statement yesterday that if he were reelected he would never allow a Palestinian state: “I don’t listen to what people say before the elections.”
Anna Ignatov, a 45-year-old high tech programmer, said she voted for the centrist Yesh Atid for as similar reason — she believe that party chief Yair Lapid had stood up to the ultra-Orthodox in the Israeli government. “It was hard to choose this time, honestly. I don’t think the parties express my feelings and interests,” she said. “I am tired of the dictate of religion.”
Asked how she made her choice, she said. “It’s something like, ‘not this, not this, not this, and whatever stays makes it.’”
In the West Bank settlement of Har Homa, just outside Jerusalem, many residents said they were voting for Netanyahu — some in spite of themselves.
Forty-year-old Ilana Ben Moshe echoed remarks of many when she said she was torn between Netanyahu and other right wing candidates, especially Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett.
“My decision was between Bennett and Netanyahu,” said Ben Moshe, a culture blogger, who went to vote with her husband, a Likud supporter, and four children that morning.
“My husband told me if Bibi won’t be elected, then Bennett will be outside. It’s not that I want Bibi, but Bibi is better than the alternative.”
Har Homa, a hilltop settlement with towering views of the Palestinian West Bank, is a right wing medley. Outside a polling station at the neighborhood’s entrance, volunteers for Yisrael Beitenu nailed a campaign tent into the ground.
A car with a poster for the Orthodox Yachad splinter party pasted on its hood was parked next to a vehicle with Hello Kitty seat covers. Posters for Shas and Likud dotted balconies and street medians.
The Jewish Home Party set up a life sized placard of Bennett with his arm around a curly-haired man with his face cut out. Children placed their faces inside the hole and smiled for pictures.
While some Har Homa voters said that they felt better represented by smaller parties, many said it was crucial to support Netanyahu to ensure a right-wing government as their Prime Minister had slipped in the polls in recent weeks.
“I would prefer to vote Bennett, but he’s losing votes to Kahlon and Yair Lapid,” said Benji Weiss, a 36-year-old information technology analyst. “This election has very little to do with ideas. It’s about left versus right.”
Even Amir Weitmann, a Har Homa resident who is number 39 on the Likud electoral list, admitted that the electorate was frustrated with Netanyahu. “To a large extent we have to admit that a large segment are fed up with Netanyahu,” he said. Still, he said, “I think a right-wing coalition offers better prospects to have a government.”
Netanyahu visited Har Homa on Monday and declared that he would oppose a Palestinian state if he were reelected, an 11th hour statement meant to appeal to Israel’s far right. He said that he pushed for Har Homa’s construction in the 1990s as a way to break up Palestinian territorial contiguity and separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
“Bibi, Bibi, Bibi,” a woman softly chanted as she walked out of the polling station to her car.
Others in Har Homa were Likud supporters through and through. “He has pressure to give in, to give in, to give in and the other side won’t give anything,” said Moshe Sadeh, a 68-year-old accountant. “The prime minister is not a ‘yes man.’”
Sadeh said he asked a good friend, a political observer, what he predicts will happen in the election. The friend said: “Likud is in a tailspin.”
“But after Netanyahu came to Har Homa and I saw his presence,” said Sadeh, “I said to the same person, ‘It’s not over until it’s over.’”
Even Google is getting in the spirit with a special Election Day Google Doodle.
Arab turnout was said to be much higher than in past elections.
There are reports of long lines outside of polling stations in Arab villages and towns, although officials from the Joint List are reluctant to express too much optimism, Haaretz reported.
Joint List chairman Ayman Oudeh recently sent a message to party activists informing them of the positive trend, though he also cautioned against being too complacent.
In past elections several Arab parties ran separately, but this time they united and may form the third-biggest voting bloc in the Knesset.
According to media reports, voter turnout was 37% as of 2 pm Israel time.
That’s a high figure and mirrors results of 1999, when the Labor Party unseated a Netanyahu government.
Historically, high turnout has been good news for the left, because right-wing Jewish settlers and ultra-Orthodox voters are more reliable voters, whereas more casual voters tend to lean left.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.