There was a subdued atmosphere on the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday, as this overwhelmingly liberal city digested the news that Benjamin Netanyahu would once again be their prime minister — but this time with even more far-right coalition partners.
“It feels like Memorial Day. People have been so depressed and also so polite to each other. No one honked at me, even when I blocked traffic while parking,” says Aya, an architect who lives in a northern neighborhood of Tel Aviv and prefers to be identified only by her first name.
She voted for the centrist Kahol Lavan party, along with over 45 percent of her fellow residents, hoping for Netanyahu’s ouster after a decade in power. “I’ve already cried three times today,” she admits.
Tel Aviv residents — Tel Avivim, as they are known here — voted in large numbers for left-wing or center-left parties, with some 65 percent of the public backing either Kahol Lavan, Meretz, Labor or Hadash-Ta’al.
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The downbeat locals Haaretz spoke to on this otherwise sunny day expressed a mixture of despair and bafflement that their fellow Israelis could reelect a corruption-plagued premier who, they fear, is leading the country toward an amoral autocracy; someone who they say ran an openly racist campaign against Arab citizens, spread lies about his rivals, and labels liberals like themselves traitors.
In the city center, Lilach Fishman, 35, a small business owner who owns a bakery and two cafés, waves her hand toward the normally traffic-clogged King George Street. “Look at this: The streets are empty, businesses are empty. The whole city has sunk into a depression,” she says.
On Election Day, she and her staff at her La Gaterie sidewalk café took an informal poll of customers. Everyone said they voted for Kahol Lavan or the two left-wing parties, Labor and Meretz, except for one customer who said he voted for Netanyahu’s Likud.
“I don’t see a future,” sighs Fishman. “Likud voters are such a large population and they have more kids than we do. Tuesday we still had hope. But now I feel like nothing will change, and the gap between my values and desires and what the state is doing will only grow.”
As part of an Election Eve gambit to take votes from other right-wing parties, Netanyahu said he would start annexing parts of the West Bank if he were reelected. He added that no West Bank settlements would be evacuated. Critics have warned that the measure, which would break Israel’s own policy of seeking a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could spell the end of Israel as a democracy and country with a Jewish majority.
“We cannot have 2.7 million Palestinians under our control,” says Fishman, who wants to see Israel remain Jewish and democratic, and pursuing a two-state solution. She was 12 when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a Jewish nationalist who wanted to stop the Oslo Accords that Rabin had signed with the Palestinians.
Eran Antzilevitch, 37, a teacher at an elementary school in north Tel Aviv, says he does not think voters grasp the gravity of voting for Likud and other right-wing parties.
“I don’t think most people understand what they just voted for,” he says. “I don’t think they understand the consequences.” As an example, he points to Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties — an alliance between two far-right parties and the Kahanist, racist Otzma Yehudit. Smotrich, who has said he wants to be education minister in the next government, has previously called for Arab-Jewish segregation in Israeli housing and hospitals, and called gay people “abnormal.”
Antzilevitch says he fears for the future, and “that everything will become extreme. Society is divided. The discourse is a violent one, especially against certain communities.”
Racheli Zuckerman, a 26-year-old engineering student, woke up Wednesday morning and the first thing she did was search online for the election results. There were conflicting exit poll results when she had gone to sleep, some putting Kahol Lavan ahead of Likud.
“I said ‘Oof!’ [‘Oh no!’] and started thinking about what it all means. I asked myself: ‘Have we lost our ability to be a moral country that knows what to do? When did we become so blind?’”
She works part-time at Bucke, a popular neighborhood café in the Yehuda Maccabee area of North Tel Aviv. Her boss, Itai Barel, is also concerned.
“There is this machine of hatred that has been mobilized, and I just don’t understand how people can vote out of fear instead of hope,” he says. “The country feels like it is turning more nationalistic and more aggressive. But I still feel hope. I see how many people did go out and vote, and that gives me hope — that people are still engaged in democratic life, there are those who want to build a better reality.”
Barel says his café feels like a second home to its employees — all of whom voted for parties in the center-left bloc, he says. “There has been a feeling of despair today, but we have to find a way to change the political map. We need people to wake up.”
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