In the right-wing stronghold of Ashdod, there are still lots of folks who adore Benjamin Netanyahu.
Take Tina Shamenashvili, the owner of a small general store in one of the city’s predominantly Russian-speaking neighborhoods.
“I have two kids in the army now protecting our country, and I know they’re in good hands with Bibi,” says Shamenashvili, who still speaks with a slight Russian accent despite having moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago. “I just don’t get all these army generals who want to oust him. A nice word and a little support wouldn’t hurt them,” she adds.
Yet support for Netanyahu and his party appears to be dissipating in this large southern city, located on the Mediterranean coast.
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On the other side of town, Nelly, a Russian-speaker who works as a manicurist at a local beauty shop (and requested that her full name not be published), said that although she voted Likud in the last election, she was “one million percent” certain she would not do so again. She still hasn’t decided which party will get her vote.
The same holds true for Rosti (who also asked that his surname not be published), who with his wife Svetlana – both of them from Ukraine – runs a small flower shop here.
“For the past 25 years I’ve lived here, I’ve always voted Likud,” he says. “I thought Bibi was the future of Israel, that he would bring peace. But something about him has changed – it seems like he’s only interested in solving our problems abroad and doesn’t care about what’s happening inside the country.”
Rosti says he was inclined to vote for Yesh Atid, the centrist party headed by Yair Lapid, but was not ruling out Hosen L’Yisrael – the brand-new party created by former Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. “We need a change, and the two of them look like the type of people who can get things done,” Rosti says, adding, “Bibi’s been in office for too long.”
With a population of 225,000, Ashdod has long been a Likud stronghold. In the last election in 2015, the party captured about one-third of the vote here. By contrast, the main opposition party, Zionist Union, barely won 10 percent.
In the 1990s, the city took in many Russian-speakers, who were part of the mass immigration wave from the former Soviet Union. Today, about one in every three residents here is a Russian-speaker. That could explain why the party second to Likud in the city is Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union). Yisrael Beiteinu is a right-wing party whose main constituency is Russian speakers, the vast majority of them not religious. For the better part of the past four years, it served in Netanyahu’s coalition government.
But a year ago, something shifted in the city: A new law was passed prohibiting most shops in Israel from operating on Shabbat. At the time, the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties held a large share of the seats on the city council and were able to pressure Yehiel Lasri – the mayor now serving his third term – into slapping fines on shops that continued to stay open despite the new prohibition. The city’s nonreligious residents – a disproportionately large share of them Russian-speakers – took to the streets in protest.
Week after week, thousands would show up at City Hall on Saturday nights to vent their anger. The mayor eventually caved and ordered law enforcement authorities to stop issuing the fines.
Last October, when municipal elections were held, the mayor just retained his seat, but the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition were largely booted out. Voter turnout, it emerged, was much higher than in previous municipal elections, with nonreligious residents coming out in full force. These days, residents say, the mayor wouldn’t even dream of touching businesses that stay open on Shabbat.
Katya Kupchik, director of the Russian-speaking division at Be Free Israel (also known as Israel Hofsheet) – an organization that promotes religious freedom in the country – says last year’s protests against the so-called supermarket law were a game-changer.
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” she says, “that after all they’ve had to put up with in this country – like the constant questions about how Jewish they are – this was the issue that brought the Russian-speakers out to the streets. I guess it’s because big ideological issues like religious freedom and Jewish pluralism don’t really speak to them. But when you tell them they can’t go to the store on Shabbat to buy milk or baby formula, that’s hitting them close to home,” says Kupchik.
Unlike their parents, members of the younger generation of Russian-speakers in Israel are “super-Israeli,” notes Kupchik. “They grew up here, they speak Hebrew, and they consume their news in Hebrew. When political parties don’t deliver on their promises to them, they look elsewhere. That’s why many are starting to look toward the center.”
Alex Panov is a case in point. A 29-year-old Ashdodi, he was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel at age 2. After a stint in Tel Aviv, where he worked in high-tech, he returned to the port city a few years ago to fight for a cause close to his heart: public transportation on Shabbat. Until that becomes a reality, though, Panov is running the local branch of Shabus – a cooperative that provides a limited form of bus service on Shabbat.
A leading activist in last year’s protests against the supermarket law, Panov predicts that both Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu will take a beating here in the upcoming election.
“Lieberman, for one, doesn’t represent the young generation here,” he says. “He’s been sitting in the government for 20 years, and all he does is spew hate. Unfortunately, the older generation is still loyal to him.”
As for Likud, Panov continues, despite the party’s purported liberalism, its lawmakers voted in favor of the controversial law. “I believe it’s going to cost them in the election,” he says. “I see them losing votes to both Lapid and Gantz.”
Russian-speaking voters, even the younger ones, still feel uncomfortable with the term “leftist,” Panov explains, which is why he doesn’t believe many will be moving to parties affiliated with the left, like Labor or Meretz.
Panov recently took a poll among 30 of his friends locally to see how they planned to vote in April. “Not one of them supports Lieberman, and only two of them told me they planned to vote Likud,” he reports.
And him? “I’m voting Yesh Atid,” he says. “I like the center.”
Like many of the local residents approached here while going about their daily errands, Aleksandr Koff has yet to make up his mind. A 45-year-old father of two, he moved to Israel with his parents from Ukraine in 1995. In between jobs at the moment, he says he’s done well for himself but is concerned for others like his parents, who have a hard time making ends meet.
“I have my own car, so I don’t need public transportation on Shabbat. But so many people I know do,” he says.
Koff has voted Likud in the past, and says it deserves credit for the strong Israeli economy. “But it doesn’t look like I’m going to vote for Bibi this time around,” he says. “I feel that, lately, he just doesn’t see ordinary people, people who live from hand to mouth, retirees – they don’t exist for him.” His parents, he believes, will stick with Lieberman. “They don’t really know anything else.”
Asked what direction he’s leaning toward, Koff says: “Maybe Benny Gantz. I need to learn a little bit more about him. He kind of caught us all by surprise.”
Oleg Moldavski, 36, believes many Ashdodis will punish Likud in the election for supporting the supermarket law.
“It was always a major power in this city, but I really believe it’s going to have less influence now,” he says. A former Likud supporter, he’s still not completely sure which party will get his vote in April, but says he’s leaning toward Yisrael Beiteinu. When asked about the center parties, he replies that Lapid “is not a leader” and, as for Gantz, “I’ve heard rumors that he’s really a leftist.”
Jojo Abutbul, a popular radio broadcaster who’s lived virtually his entire life here, is widely known to have his fingers on the pulse of the city. According to him, it’s still way too early to write off Likud.
“I remember a time when there was another centrist party, Kadima, that took lots of votes from Likud,” he recounts. “Eventually, those voters came back home. I believe Likud will stay strong here.”