Israelis woke up Tuesday morning to oppressive heat and overcast skies. The gloomy weather seemed to strengthen the sense of impending doom reported by many of the voters lined up outside the polling places at Tel Aviv’s Ayalon elementary school.
Among those who agreed to share information about how they had voted or intended to, many were opting for parties on the center-left. But few among them harbored hopes that their vote could affect any real change, having convinced themselves that Benjamin Netanyahu was destined to remain prime minister after this election as well.
That would include Yossi and Shoshi (who requested that their last name not be published), self-described “veteran left-wing voters” in their seventies.
“You can call me a pessimist who still hopes to be disappointed,” Yossi said. Both he and his wife said they planned to vote for left-wing Meretz, though with heavy hearts.
“It was a tough decision this time, because we didn’t think Meretz ran a very good campaign or spoke enough about the issues that matter to us, like the occupation,” said Shoshi, the more talkative of the pair. “But ultimately, we realized we had to do what we could to save the party from extinction.”
According to the final opinion polls, Meretz is hovering around the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Netanyahu’s ability to put together a majority coalition of 61 Knesset seats very much depends on whether parties like Meretz cross that threshold.
But even if her vote ultimately helps keep Meretz alive, that doesn’t provide Shoshi with much consolation.
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“I grew up in a very different Israel,” says the 75-year-old, “and the country I knew seems to be collapsing before my very eyes. It’s so sad because this could have been a wonderful place.”
In the last three election rounds, center-left parties – Kahol Lavan, the Labor Party and Meretz, in some configuration or another – won more than two-thirds of the vote in this residential neighborhood located in the eastern part of the city, bordering Givatayim. It was far beyond their share nationwide, but typical of many Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
At about 10 A.M., a steady stream of voters could be observed entering and exiting about a dozen polling places set up around the premises of the school. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions, a few extra places had been set up to prevent crowding and voters were asked, before casting their ballots, to pull down their masks so that election officials could match their faces to the photos in their ID cards.
Were the final election outcome to be based on votes in this one neighborhood, Labor, under its new feminist leader Merav Michaeli, would probably win big time – at least based on conversations with a random selection of voters.
Flanked by her two teenage sons, Tali Hassidim said she decided to support Labor this time around, after voting for Kahol Lavan in previous rounds, because of Michaeli.
“She brings something new and refreshing to the table – the power of women,” said Hassidim, a 50-year-old schoolteacher.
Nonetheless, Hassidim was not feeling optimistic. “I don’t see any change happening,” she said. “I think Netanyahu is here to stay.”
Neta Aviad is a 45-year-old artist who has always voted for Meretz. This morning, though, she cast her ballot for Labor.
“I very much wanted to vote for a party headed by a woman,” she said. “I find the idea very moving, and I really love Merav and the people on her slate. Who knows? Maybe one day she’ll be prime minister.”
Like Aviad, Daniella Itzcovich has also always voted for Meretz. But she, too, voted for Labor on Election Day, albeit for different reasons.
“I was pretty convinced that Meretz wouldn’t cross the threshold, so I decided that rather than waste my vote, I’d vote for Labor,” said the 22-year-old dental student.
Even before the final vote has been tallied, it’s clear that Meretz will perform much better in this neighborhood than it will nationwide. Miki Louzon, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, has always voted for the party and said he never doubted he would today as well.
While he said he was confident that the party would cross the electoral threshold, he was less optimistic about what he considered to be the greater goal of ousting Netanyahu.
“Based on the latest polls, the trend’s not good,” he said. “Likud is gaining ground, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that they simply ran a better campaign.”
Guy and Shlomi, arriving at the polling place with their two-and-a-half-year-old son, also planned to vote Meretz. They sounded a tad more hopeful than Louzon. “If I didn’t have hope, I couldn’t live here,” said Guy, “and I know that the day will come when Netanyahu and his family will leave the prime minister’s residence.”
“But will that happen as a result of this election?” his partner interjected. “I’m not so sure”
Among the few right-wing voters who agreed to share their thoughts, Shani Sharabi said she had still not made up her mind between two parties. “I can’t decide between Bibi [Netanyahu] and [Naftali] Bennett,” she said, referring to the leader of the Yamina party.
Sharabi, a 26-year-old student, said she and her family have always voted Likud, but she had begun to wonder whether Netanyahu had “exhausted himself” after more than a decade in continuous office.
She had thought Bennett might be able to provide the fresh blood she believed was necessary on the Israeli right, but was now having second thoughts. “I’m no longer sure he has the ability to bring about change,” she said.
North of Tel Aviv, in the suburb of Ramat Hasharon, many of the voters Haaretz spoke to also said they were looking for fresh blood in Israeli politics, especially in the prime minister’s residence.
For elderly couple Adi and Amnon, voting for the fourth time in two years was not what was discouraging to them. “The situation is discouraging, our prime minister is discouraging – that’s why we’re here,” said Adi. (The elderly couple, like others interviewed here, asked that their surname not be published.)
“I can’t look at this man anymore,” Amnon added, referring to Netanyahu. “Enough is enough.”
The entrance to the Meir Doron elementary school was eerily quiet early Tuesday morning. Only a few people came in and out while Haaretz waited outside on this unseasonably hot day, the temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
As they exited, some voters were being stopped by Tal Salfati, an activist in her twenties who was spending her day at the polling place.
“I’m here to encourage voting,” she said, explaining that she was working on behalf of the nonpartisan civil society group Darkenu and asking voters to text at least three friends who have yet to cast their ballots and encourage them to do so.
“Because this is our fourth election [in less than two years], we fear that people are frustrated and won’t go out to vote,” Salfati said. “We want to strengthen the democratic system, so we need to bring as many people as possible to exercise their right” to vote.
“Today, I’m not here in favor of a political party,” she added, “I’m here in favor of democracy.”
In the March 2020 election, Gantz’s Kahol Lavan was the clear winner in this generally middle-class city, winning almost 60 percent of the local vote. His nearest competitor was Likud, way behind with some 20 percent.
With most opinion polls putting Kahol Lavan around the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent, the former Israeli army chief will be hoping for a similar turnout on Tuesday. Ironically, the person who may do the most damage to his party is not Netanyahu but Gantz’s former political partner, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is widely predicted to be the second largest in the next parliament.
Most of the voters Haaretz spoke to – all wearing face masks as part of the coronavirus restrictions – were simply hoping for a government that wasn’t led by Netanyahu.
An elderly voter who wished to remain anonymous said she would like to see the government “in cleaner, younger hands. Every vote counts, we want the government to change,” she said, but wouldn’t divulge who she had voted for.
For Orna, voting is no less than a moral duty. “I’d like to see real unity, collaboration, fairness, honesty and real concern for the people” after this election, she said. She walked away under dusty skies as unclear as the country’s immediate political future.