On Israel’s Gaza Border, Praying for an End to Netanyahu’s ‘Hamas Government’

Kibbutz Be’eri has always been a left-wing stronghold, with Zionist Union capturing two-thirds of the vote here in 2015. They don’t seem prepared to change the habits of a lifetime, voicing suspicion of blue-eyed boy Benny Gantz and his new Kahol Lavan party

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Avraham Mencher Dvori, left, and Tzvi Alon attaching a Labor Party banner to a post at Kibbutz Be'eri. It reads "Getting back on track. Coming back to Labor."
Avraham Mencher Dvori, left, and Tzvi Alon attaching a Labor Party banner to a post at Kibbutz Be'eri. It reads "Getting back on track. Coming back to Labor."Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

With less than a month to go before the election, it’s almost inevitable that politics will seep into even the most banal conversations on Kibbutz Be’eri. All the more so at times like this, when tensions are flaring at the nearby Gaza border

Indeed, the Israeli army attacked about 100 targets in Gaza early Friday morning, in response to two rockets fired at Tel Aviv from the Strip the evening before.

So when a fellow kibbutznik stops Alon Pauker on his way to the mess hall to ask how he’s doing on this bright, sunny morning, the exchange naturally veers away from small talk. “Compared to the state of the nation,” responds Pauker, “not bad at all.”

“Don’t worry,” his interlocutor reassures him. “There’s still some hope for salvation. Maybe this time, we’ll actually succeed in taking out the Hamas government.”

Lest there be any confusion, this good-humored kibbutznik is not talking about the militant Islamist government headquartered just a few kilometers away. Rather, it’s a reference to the widely held perception here that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government has done a lot more to keep Hamas in power (allowing for the regular transfer of funds from Qatar, for example) than it has to protect Israelis living this close to the border, who have become easy targets for Palestinian militants on the other side.

Kibbutz Be'eri secretary Yaniv Hegyi.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

As Avraham Mencher Dvori, a resident of this kibbutz for nearly 70 years and an active member of the opposition Labor Party, says: “Netanyahu’s policies will lead us to disaster. He cares much more about Hamas than about us.”

If it isn’t clear already, Netanyahu isn’t very popular here. He never was. In the 2015 election, the Zionist Union (an alliance between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah) captured two-thirds of the vote in Be’eri; Likud barely won 3 percent. For comparison’s sake, in the kibbutzim as a whole, Zionist Union won 57 percent of the vote. So if there is something that still resembles a true Labor Party bastion in this country, it’s this kibbutz. 

Visitors entering Be’eri these days will notice billboards for one party and one party alone welcoming them at the gate. “Getting back on track. Coming back to Labor,” they read. It is a thinly veiled plea to the many who have abandoned the party in recent years. 

In 2015, Zionist Union won 24 seats and was the second largest party in the Knesset after Likud. Since then, its popularity has plunged with recent polls predicting Labor (leader Avi Gabbay made a very public split with Livni’s party in January) will win no more than six to eight seats in the upcoming April 9 election (more optimistic polls give it 10). 

Convinced that their party no longer poses a real challenge to Netanyahu, many Labor voters have shifted their support to Kahol Lavan — the new centrist party spearheaded by Benny Gantz, the popular former army chief-of-staff. According to recent polls, a plurality of Kahol Lavan supporters (more than a third) used to vote Labor. 

The mess hall at Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Pauker, a historian of the kibbutz movement who teaches at Beit Berl College in Kfar Sava, predicts that Kahol Lavan will win votes away from Labor on this kibbutz as well, though definitely not to the same extent. 

“I think Labor will certainly do well here, but not as well as it did in the last election,” he says. “It’ll probably get about half the votes here.”

“In the kibbutz movement in general,” he adds, “there’s been a tendency in recent elections for voters to throw their support behind parties seen as having the best chance of defeating Likud. The allegiance that once existed to parties like Labor is not as strong as it used to be.”

Pauker, 52, moved with his wife and three children to Be’eri in 2008 from Nir Oz, a kibbutz affiliated with the more left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. Old habits die hard, and so Pauker belongs to a not-inconsequential minority of members of this kibbutz who vote Meretz.

Merav Barkai at Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Like many supporters of Labor and Meretz, he would have preferred that the two parties form an alliance before the election to create a more substantial left-wing bloc. But those attempts failed. “There really aren’t any dramatic differences between the two parties anymore,” he says.

‘Like watching your house burn down’

In the past year, Hamas militants have introduced a new weapon into their ongoing war against Israel: incendiary kites and balloons. Its main victims have been the kibbutzim and other agricultural communities whose fields lie along the border. According to Pauker, living under this growing threat hasn’t transformed the doves on his kibbutz into hawks, as might have been expected, or prompted a sudden jolt to the right. 

“Security concerns don’t necessarily push people in that direction — especially when it is quite obvious that the current right-wing government has no solutions,” he says. 

Of the kibbutzim situated along the Gaza border, Be’eri — with 1,200 residents (500 of whom are official members) — is by far the largest and most prosperous. Founded in 1946, it counts itself among a minority of kibbutzim that still operate the old-fashioned way, with almost everything shared among its members. 

Although Be’eri grows a variety of fruit and vegetables, its main cash cow is a printing press — the largest in the country.

Downtime at Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Yaniv Hegyi, the 45-year-old secretary of Be’eri (the top leadership job at any kibbutz, typically rotated among it members), was not born here. He grew up in Givatayim, on the border of Tel Aviv. His wife was born and raised in Kissufim, a nearby kibbutz. After spending a number of years living in the United States and Costa Rica on relocation assignments, they moved back to Israel with their three children 14 years ago and decided to check out the possibility of living on a kibbutz. “We came to Be’eri and fell in love,” says Hegyi. 

The incendiary balloons and kites keep everyone on alert, he says, but they haven’t caused serious physical damage. “The main effect has been emotional,” notes Hegyi. “We have kids here who freak out now every time they see a balloon or a kite. And when you see your fields go up in flames, it’s like watching your house burn down. People generally feel less safe.”

Despite this trauma, he says, “we are still a kibbutz that believes in peace and dialogue.” 

The fact that Be’eri has stayed true to traditional kibbutz values, he believes, may explain this upbeat attitude in the face of adversity. 

“Kibbutz life is based on solidarity and a belief in the basic good of all people. Most of us here believe that if the people in Gaza had the opportunity to work and earn a livelihood, not to mention clean water to drink, they wouldn’t resort to terror.”

Vivian Silver at Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Unlike their government, Hegyi says, the members of Be’eri do not delude themselves into believing the current situation is sustainable. 

“What Bibi [Netanyahu] says is that the conflict can be managed,” he says. “We don’t believe in managing conflicts. We believe in solving them. As I see it, Labor is the only party that dares to say the conflict needs to be solved and actually provides a way.”

The Labor Party platform, published earlier this month, endorses a two-state solution — meaning the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Tzvi Alon has been living on this kibbutz since he moved here from Argentina at 14. A card-carrying Labor member, he is busy this morning with his good friend Dvori hanging up party billboards around the kibbutz.

The mess hall at Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

“I’ve asked myself many times whether I vote for Labor simply out of habit,” he says. “I definitely don’t think Labor is perfect, and I’m critical of many things it does. For example, I didn’t like the way Gabbay fired Tzipi Livni during a live broadcast. But I’ve looked around and I haven’t found a party that I like more.”

The blue eyes effect

All four of Alon’s children and six of his grandchildren live here on the kibbutz. He suspects that two of them may be voting for Gantz. “If they are, I’m going to do my darnedest to persuade them to come back to Labor,” says the 69-year-old. The fact that Kahol Lavan could be pulling so many votes away from Labor, he says, proves that “the era of ideology in politics is over.”

“All that matters these days is which candidate is taller and which has bluer eyes,” says Alon, referring to Gantz’s well-known physical attributes.

His buddy Dvori couldn’t agree more. “These hot air parties,” as he refers to the competition, “are a threat to democracy.”

Along with serving as secretary of this kibbutz on three separate occasions, Dvori, 75, has also headed the regional council. It makes him sad, he concedes, to witness what’s become of the once mighty Labor Party that ruled Israel for the first three decades of its existence. “But as I see it, the downfall didn’t begin with Gabbay,” he says. “It started way before that, when the trade unions in this country started losing power.”

Dr. Alon Pauker at Kibbutz Be'eri. “I think Labor will certainly do well here, but not as well as it did in the last election,” he says.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

One of his children, he says, voted for Yesh Atid in the last election, but Dvori hopes that may have been a passing phase. “I think he may come back to Labor this time.”

Originally from Australia, 57-year-old Danny Majzner hasn’t yet made up his mind.  In the last election, he voted for Meretz, out of fear that the party might not cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and gain representation in the Knesset. He was seriously considering voting for Gantz this time, but then his “good buddy” Haim Jelin — a former Yesh Atid MK who lives on Be’eri — left the party and rejoined Labor, leaving Majzner in a bind. 

“Had Haim stayed there, I probably would have voted Kahol Lavan,” he says. “Right now, I have no freaking idea how I’m going to vote. I’d say that I’m 51 percent leaning toward Labor and 49 percent toward Kahol Lavan,” adds Majzner, who runs the kibbutz bike shop. 

Taking a break for lunch in the huge mess hall, Ella Gati, 35 and nine months pregnant, is also torn. The choice for her is between Labor and Meretz. “I identify most with Labor, but I really feel it’s important to have Meretz in the Knesset, and that’s why I voted for them last time as well,” she says.

As far as she’s concerned, Gantz isn’t an option at all. “I fear he will form a coalition with Likud,” says Gati, cradling her large belly.

Kibbutz Be'eri.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Vivian Silver, originally from Canada, usually votes Labor, though she says her views tend to be further to the left than most of the rest at this kibbutz. “I always felt it was important for Labor to come out strong, so it would have a shot at forming the next government,” the veteran peace activist explains. That isn’t a consideration these days, in light of Labor’s poor standing in the polls. 

Still undecided, Silver says she is torn between three parties: Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz. “I’m going to decide at the last minute, based on what the polls are showing,” she says. “And it’s going to be a purely tactical decision — the party that could be most effective in making sure Bibi will not be the next prime minister is the one that will get my vote.”

Although she has been active in Labor for years, Merav Barkai, a 38-year-old mother of three, sometimes wonders whether she continues voting for the party for ideological reasons or out of sheer habit. “I guess it’s 50-50,” she says. “But sometimes I feel like a soccer fan who even when her team is losing badly can’t bring herself to switch sides.” 

It helps, she says, that she hasn’t found another party with a platform and ideology so in line with her own positions.

The fact that Gantz’s party continues to lead Likud in the polls gives many people on this kibbutz a little hope that something might change after April 9. Not Barkai, though. “I’m not so sure Kahol Lavan is better than what we have now,” she says. “In fact, it looks to me like there’s not that big a difference between the two main alternatives. So I wouldn’t say I’m feeling very optimistic these days."