“What Bibi has done for Israel no other prime minister has done in the history of Israel,” declares Sarit Zagral, 41, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a chorus of “That’s rights” from a group of neighbors and friends gathered for their daily morning coffee together at a small café at the entrance to the Hatikva open-air market.
But one member of what they jokingly refer to as their own “parliament” in this working-class neighborhood of south Tel Aviv shakes his heads and says they are wrong: It’s time for Netanyahu to go after a decade in power and facing indictments for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
It’s Election Day and this time he announces, he won’t be voting for Netanyahu. He is on his way to cast his ballot for Kahol Lavan, the new centrist party that has been running neck-and-neck in the polls with Netanyahu’s Likud.
“We are all for Bibi except for him,” says Emmanual Zahavi, 66, an airport worker, pointing to the lone dissenter, a man in his 50s with gold rimmed glasses who prefers not to share his name.
At the produce stalls of the market bursting with fresh offerings like artichokes, avocados, oranges and cauliflowers, the scene at the parliament is repeated — with most shoppers and workers in this longtime Likud stronghold still planning to vote for Likud, but with a significant sprinkling of voices for Gantz’s party. When Netanyahu visited the market last week, some hailed him as “King Bibi” but there was one woman who threw a red pepper at him.
“I don’t vote for thieves,” says Rafi Talenski, 33, tersely from behind the vegetable stand he runs. He is about to take a break from the stand and go vote Kahol Lavan, he says.
Across the way, at Sidon Moschiah’s stall, the staunch Netanyahu supporter argues with a customer named Avi, a 64-year-old bank worker who just told him he is also voting Kahol Lavan because, he says, “Bibi is corrupt.”
“I am crazy about Bibi, I’m a Likudnik, it’s in my blood. I’m a man of peace, I love peace, but because of how my parents were treated as second-class citizens by Labor when they were in power after they immigrated here from Iraq, I have always voted for Likud,” says Moschiah, expressing a common sentiment among the community of Mizrahi Jews (with origins in North African and Middle Eastern countries) whose families were ill-treated by the then-Ashkenazi Labor establishment.
Nearby, Yakov Cohen’s voice booms “Fresh strawberries, fresh strawberries,” as he unloads boxes of them and piles them high on a table at his stall — along with praise for Netanyahu. “He’s the best leader, a brilliant person who can speak well, in Hebrew and English,” he says.
“I’m afraid we will see the left gain power in this Knesset and they are anti-religious, anti-Shabbat — they want to open businesses and they want people to travel on Shabbat. But God gave us Shabbat,” says Cohen, who himself is religious.
“For me, [Bibi] is the only one. Netanyahu has created something good here in Israel; look at him sitting with Trump and Putin — no one else comes close to his political experience and standing,” says Zahavi, who, like other Netanyahu loyalists at the market, dismisses the corruption and other charges against the prime minister, and even his eleventh-hour gambit to win votes away from the smaller far-right parties by promising to annex parts of the West Bank.
If he follows through on that promise, a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be even harder to establish and Israel could find itself in charge of 2.7 million Palestinians, marking the end of a democratic Israel. Netanyahu won’t fulfill that pledge, Zahavi says. “I want two states [for Israel and the Palestinians]. It’s just politics; everything can change. And as for the corruption charges, as long as he keeps doing a good job for us, I don’t care how much champagne he drinks.” One of the charges against the prime minister is exchanging political favors for pink champagne and cigars.
At Moschiah’s stall, another political debate has broken out. A woman named Dalia, a 75-year-old retired preschool teacher who preferred to be identified only by her first name, says she is switching from Likud for the first time. She is voting Kahol Lavan and explains why Netanyahu has lost her trust: “With all the trouble he is in — enough already.”
As she walks away toward an adjacent bakery and starts filling a bag with fresh rolls, she turns and adds: “I hope whoever wins, they will be good for Israel.”
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