In the City They Call Israel’s Ohio, Voters Are Still Wavering

To judge from results in the last two elections, Rehovot is Israel’s bellwether. Where are the winds blowing in the city as the nation prepares to head to the polls?

Moti Milrod

REHOVOT – In almost every U.S. election since 1900, the presidential candidate who wins the state of Ohio has taken up residence in the White House. If there’s a place that holds a similar distinction in Israel, it would have to be this city.

In the past two Knesset elections (February 2009 and January 2013), it has voted like the nation, with the breakdown of votes here matching almost one-on-one the breakdown in all of Israel. For this reason, campaign strategists are keeping a very close eye on this city of 139,000 ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Situated some 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Tel Aviv, Rehovot is not quite in the center of the country, yet not quite the periphery. How has it become Israel’s bellwether? Well, there are few places in the country that can match its diversity.

“You really do have everyone here,” says Hadas Avivi, a scion of the legendary Smilansky family – who included agricultural pioneer Moshe, his novelist brother Meir and psychoanalyst sister Anna – which was among the first to settle in Rehovot, in the 1890s. “Walking around this city, you sometimes look around and think to yourself, ‘Wow,’” adds Avivi.

Home of the esteemed Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot counts among its residents Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned researchers. And the new mayor of this city, Rachamim Malul, is an ultra-Orthodox, Moroccan-born former member of Shas (the political party of Sephardi Haredim). The first Yemenite Jews to make their way to Palestine – long before the establishment of the state – ultimately found their way here, and many of their descendants are still proud Rehovoites, residents of the well-known Sha’arayim neighborhood.

Both Russian and Ethiopian Jews, who came on the immigration waves of the early 1990s, are heavily represented among the population, as are the ultra-Orthodox. In fact, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, Rehovot has possibly the largest population of Haredim in Israel. It also has a large contingent of Modern Orthodox Jews, many of them immigrants from English-speaking countries. Arabs are perhaps the only community in Israel without any representation in this city.

Because it is in so many ways a mini-Israel, Rehovot historian Danny Bar-Maoz notes that many of the country’s big consumer companies come to here to test out their products. “This place is a social mosaic of Israel,” he says.

Although Rehovot is naturally a key stomping ground for the big political parties, things were relatively quiet here only a few days before the election. Few campaign billboards were evident at the major intersections, while vendors at the main downtown fresh produce market were uncharacteristically mum about politics.

Because it says so in Israel Hayom

Efraim Chanuka, who has been running a fruit stand here since 1970, was an exception. “Only Likud,” he says, expressing confidence that, despite recent polls, the ruling party will pull ahead by Tuesday. To explain why there is no alternative to the major right-wing party, at least in his opinion, he points to a front-page headline in Israel Hayom, the newspaper funded by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “You see what’s written here?” he asks. “Bougie and Tzipi are going to join forces with the Arabs.” He is referring to Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Tzipi Livni, the coleaders of Zionist Union, the center-left party that is polling ahead of Likud.

A few meters away, another fruit vendor, David Razam, was showing off some of his latest paintings to a customer. Their common theme: the undecided voter in Israel. And Razam counts himself among them. “When I get to the ballot box on Tuesday morning, I know my hand is going to be shaking, but I’m going to let it decide for me how to vote,” he says.

If there’s one thing he’s willing to predict about the election outcome, it’s the following: “Half the country is going to be sad, and half is going to be happy.”

Shella Gross, a loyal customer, walks in and offers him a hug. A resident of Rehovot for the past 40 years, she has finally made her decision. “I’ve always voted for the left, and in the last election I voted for Meretz,” she says. “But then I understood that it was important this time to vote for a big party, and I was debating between Zionist Union and Yesh Atid [the centrist party headed by Yair Lapid]. The other day, when I was sitting on the train, someone convinced me that a vote for Yesh Atid could end up being a vote for Bibi [Netanyahu], so I decided I’m going to vote for Zionist Union instead. For me, the most important thing is to defeat Bibi. Now I’ve got to convince my husband.”

On Herzl Street, Rehovot’s main drag, the falafel shop owned by the Karity brothers is a local institution. Members of one of the big Yemenite clans in this city, the brothers are all die-hard Likud supporters. “Don’t believe the polls,” says Ariel Karity, as he stuffs a pita with the fried chickpea balls. “I’m telling you, Likud is going to win, big-time. With all due respect, can Bougie really lead Israel? Can he stand up to [President Barack] Obama and say no?”

“If Bougie wins,” pipes in his brother Eliran, “I’m out of here.”

'Likud has been pretty sleepy'

Avi Chekol, 23, was born in Rehovot to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia. He says he did not vote in the last two elections, but is considering casting a ballot on Tuesday. “I’m still not decided. It’ll be either Bibi or [Moshe] Kahlon,” he says, referring to the head of the centrist-right Kulanu party.

Zohar Blum, formerly a Labor Party member who defected to Yesh Atid, has been sitting on the city council for the past 11 years, today serving as deputy mayor. It’s too early, he says, to gauge which way the winds are blowing in his hometown. “What I can say is that Likud has been pretty sleepy, not putting in that much effort to win, whereas the other side has a lot more fire in its eyes,” he says.

Matan Dil, a representative of an independent party that represents young adults in the city, is willing to take it a stage further. “I’m right wing,” says the 32-year-old, who also serves as deputy mayor, “but I’m not convinced the right wing is going to form the next government. There is a real chance that it will be a left-wing government, and for me that’s a bad thing. I’m out in the field a lot talking to young people, and most of them tell me they’re either voting for Zionist Union or Yesh Atid.”

Asked if she has any premonitions about a Likud upset, Avivi responds, “I want to say yes, a little, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”