From Bibi to Barak

One town's shift shows why Israelis voted for change.


Flore de Preneuf
May 18, 1999 5:00PM (UTC)

Monday was a big day for Jacob Zigelboim. After working as a vacuum-cleaner salesman for several years, he was busily preparing to open his own state-of-the-art video shop. And after supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for three years, he decided to vote for his opponent, Ehud Barak.

Surrounded by walls of fresh paint, Zigelboim, 28, explained his turnabout in terms of freedom. Under Netanyahu, he saw "religious people controlling almost every aspect of life in Israel. It bothers me because I believe in 'live and let live.'" Today, a shop like Zigelboim's that stays open on Friday night risks being fined and closed by the religious-led Ministry of Labor. A secular government led by Barak could make it possible for his shop to rent videos on the Sabbath.

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Defections like Zigelboim were common Monday as Israelis overwhelmingly rejected Netanyahu's reelection bid. Three years after Netanyahu narrowly defeated incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres, who took over after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Barak won 58 percent of the vote Monday, compared to 42 percent for Netanyahu, according to early estimates.

Those results would have seemed implausible just a few weeks ago. Throughout the campaign, Israeli pundits were predicting a close election, trying to decipher how the dynamics of a five-way race and an all but certain run-off, would ultimately play out. But in the final 24 hours of the campaign, the puzzle was greatly simplified: All three minor candidates dropped out of the race, leaving voters to choose between incumbent Netanyahu and his left-leaning challenger Barak.

Labor's resounding victory Monday left Netanyahu supporters to wonder why so many voters jumped ship since the 1996 elections.

Here in Rehovot, a small town southwest of Tel Aviv, voters were clearly pro-Netanyahu in 1996. While Netanyahu won by less than 1 percentage point nationwide, he beat the Peres by nearly 7 points in Rehovot.

Before Monday's election, there were again plenty of campaign posters on the walls proclaiming "Only Netanyahu" but the hesitations and defections of people in the streets told a different story.

The reasons for the erosion of Netanyahu's support are as different as the people who put Netanyahu in power in the first place. Like Zigelboim who moved to Israel from Lithuania, many secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union were wary of Netanyahu because of his connection with religious parties, even though many supported his hard-line stance on the issue of Israeli security.

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Leonard Zakharov, a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union and once a Netanyahu supporter, is not so much disappointed by the prime minister's policies than turned off by what he calls "small things". He is irked by Netanyahu's association with Shas, a religious, Sephardic party whose leaders have referred to the new Soviet immigrants as prostitutes and criminals. "Netanyahu and Barak are the same. But Barak has promised to separate himself from the religious," said Zakharov, 58, who left Ukraine four years ago.

On the other side of the political spectrum, religious conservatives, who played a key role in the Netanyahu coalition, could not forgive Netanyahu's signing of the Hebron and Wye River accords trading land for peace with the Palestinians.

Exit polls showed Netanyahu's most loyal backers were religious Jews and settlers who live in Israeli-occupied territory. They, too, have their grudges against Bibi, but Barak, who has explicitly promised to shift state resources from talmudic seminars and settlements to education and housing, has left them little choice.

A group of men in a neighborhood barber shop announced in unison "only Netanyahu!" when asked which candidate they supported But when prodded, Azrikan Maron, the owner of a neighborhood falafel stand, admitted having strong reservations. He stuck with Netanyahu "not that I like him so much, but I'm afraid of the other side," he said from the barber's chair. He fears that Barak will go "too far in the peace process".

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"Bibi was not OK as prime minister -- his relationship with people is very bad and he is not trustworthy," said Rachel, a 30-year-old biology teacher wearing the long skirt and hat of religious Jews, who declined to give her last name. "But for me as a religious person, he's (was) the best option." The people surrounding Barak "will destroy the status quo and the Sabbath," she said.

A settler who commutes daily from the West Bank to a high-tech park outside Rehovot, Nati Sobovitz, 46, expressed the same resignation. "I'm not happy that Netanyahu signed the Wye and Hebron accords, but he's a political realist. Barak will do much worse." He thinks Barak will freeze construction and reduce financial assistance to the settlements. "We remember how it was under [Yitzhak] Rabin."

Many secular Israelis did not see vast differences in the politics of the two candidates. Maron, 50, predicted Barak's election will mean little substantive change on key issues like economic policy and security. "Under different circumstances these two candidates would live under the same roof. It's not like in the old days when [David] Ben-Gurion was radically different from [Menachem] Begin."

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It is this narrowing of ideological differences between Israel's two longtime rival parties, the left-leaning Labor Party and the right-leaning Likud, that makes the switch from Netanyahu to Barak so easy for many.

Avishai Mizrahi, 58, a native of Rehovot, voted for in 1996 but "I didn't think Bibi would be so extreme." Now he says he sees a man who is dangerous, who "likes to be tough but doesn't listen," may provoke a war and has even managed to damage Israel's friendship with the United States. But this time, he voted for Barak. "I've never followed a leader blindly."


Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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