Where King Bibi Reigns Supreme, the Magic May Be Wearing Off

Dimona has historically been a Likud stronghold, with over half of all its voters backing Benjamin Netanyahu’s party in April. But a visit to the desert city finds some residents reacting differently ahead of Tuesday’s election

A woman walking past election posters for Shas and Otzma Yehudit in the southern city of Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The final week of the election campaign couldn’t have been more disastrous for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His bid to pass legislation that would have allowed cameras into polling stations — seen as a clear attempt to intimidate Arab voters — was defeated. Then, while addressing a party rally in the southern coastal city of Ashdod, “Mr. Security” had to be rushed off the stage because of a Hamas rocket attack. (For the latest election polls – click here)

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On the heels of this embarrassing incident — Facebook-lived for the entire nation to see — came another major setback: The abrupt departure of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a key ally in Netanyahu’s campaign against Iran, amid reports that President Donald Trump was considering easing sanctions on the regime that has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

>> Read more: Israelis vs. the Jews: The real voters who will decide Netanyahu’s fate | Analysis

But none of this seemed to matter to voters in Dimona. For these folks, it was all “shtuyot” (“nonsense”). The prevailing mantra in this Negev desert town in southern Israel is and remains “Rak Bibi” (“Only Bibi,” a reference to the prime minister’s nickname).

Likud in Dimona
Haaretz

It should come as no surprise. There is no location in Israel today more deserving of the title “Likud stronghold.” In the April 9 election, 56 percent of Dimona voters cast their ballot for Netanyahu’s long-ruling party — more than anywhere else in the country. By contrast, Kahol Lavan, the centrist party running neck and neck with Likud, captured a mere 12 percent of the vote here.

Dimona’s best-known claim to fame is that it is home to the country’s main nuclear reactor. (Israel neither confirms or denies having the bomb, maintaining a long-term policy of ambiguity on what goes on at this site.) Indeed, the complex, located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) outside Dimona’s municipal borders, is a major employer in this city of some 34,000 residents — a large share of them immigrants and offspring of immigrants from North Africa who settled in Israel in the 1950s and ’60s.

Midmorning late last week, Miriam Amar and Rachel Assouline, two local housewives, were sitting at a small table outside a shop on the main drag, gossiping over strong black coffee. Die-hard Likudniks, as they proudly attest, they would never consider voting for another party.

Rachel Assouline, left, and Miriam Amar in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“In Dimona, we love Bibi,” says 70-year-old Assouline, a mother of seven. Asked if she isn’t concerned about corruption allegations against the prime minister, the kindly looking grandmother responds: “Who isn’t corrupt?”

Amar adds: “Until he’s been convicted, for me he’s still innocent.”

Dimona might strike strangers as a godforsaken town, but that is not how Amar, a 59-year-old mother of four, sees it. To understand the secret of Netanyahu’s success here, she says, visitors need only cast their eyes around. “Just look,” she says, pointing in the direction of the street. “Look at all the cars. Look at all the people in the shops. It’s a very good life we have here.”

“You want to hear my bet?” she continues. “Bibi’s going to win even more votes here on Tuesday than he did last time around.”

To be sure, Dimona has come a long way in recent years. New neighborhoods with stylish one-family homes, offering attractive and affordable housing options for young families, have sprouted up on the outskirts of town, replacing many of the old, ugly apartment blocks. The city now has its own theater, a state-of-the-art country club, and even a park with a man-made lake offering some welcome respite from the dry and bland desert surroundings. Unemployment, which was once as high as 15 percent, is barely half that today, and the municipal budget, for the first time ever, boasts a surplus.

Election ads for Likud and Shas in Dimona, September 12, 2019. Likud won 56 percent of the vote in the southern city in April 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Once a poor town on the periphery, Dimona could be said to be thriving these days, and the change — as far as voters here are concerned — all happened on Netanyahu’s watch.

‘One of us’

Kobi Vaizman teaches civics at the local high school and runs a small bourekas eatery on the side. Don’t expect any major change in the voting results here on Tuesday, he says.

Election ads for the extremist Otzma Yehudit party and Labor-Gesher in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Netanyahu appeals to voters here because he is able to sell what others can’t: Good old-fashioned patriotism and Jewish pride,” says the gregarious 38-year-old. “He’s what you call ‘One of us.’”

Like many here, Vaizman believes Netanyahu deserves all the credit for Israel’s economic prosperity. “He understood better than anyone that we needed to become part of the global world, and life is much better here as a result,” he says.

“At the same time,” he adds, “I wish he understood that there are always going to be people left behind in the era of globalization, and it’s the government’s job to take care of them.”

Vaizman voted Likud in April, but says that unlike many of his friends and acquaintances here, he was never a party loyalist. With just days to go until the next round, he is still undecided — but says it most probably will not be Likud that gets his vote.

“This past election proved to me that Netanyahu is more concerned with staying out of jail than working for the citizens of this country,” he explains, referring to the numerous corruption cases pending against the prime minister.

Vaizman says he seriously contemplated not voting at all, but as a civics teacher understands it would not be a good example to set.

An election ad for Shas, featuring the party's late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Whoever gives their vote to the party “will be spared on the Day of Judgment,” says Ari Albilia.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I’ll most likely make my decision on the morning of Election Day, and it might even be Amir Peretz I vote for,” he says, referring to the Labor Party leader who is also a resident of the Negev and has targeted working-class areas like Dimona in his campaign.

Oded Harush, 32, represents an independent party on the municipal council. Born and raised in Dimona, he commutes to Jerusalem almost every day, where he works as a project coordinator for an informal education organization. “I didn’t have to stay in Dimona, but I chose to,” he points out.

His grandparents, immigrants from Morocco, were among the city’s first residents. “They had been tricked into believing that they were coming to live at a place near the sea,” he relays. “At the time, my grandmother already had relatives living in Haifa and had been reassured that Dimona was close to Haifa” (the port is about 230 kilometers north of the desert city).

Many Israelis on the left, Harush notes, don’t understand why working-class towns like Dimona, whose residents are largely Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, continue to vote Likud when the party, as he puts it, “seems to be constantly screwing them.”

“What these people don’t understand,” he says, “is that for many Mizrahi Jews, national solidarity is much more important than their personal welfare. So when people point out to them that Likud policies actually hurt them, they could care less.”

Harush has never voted Likud and on Tuesday will cast his ballot for Yamina, the religious, right-wing party headed by Ayelet Shaked. But not without serious reservations.

“I’m not happy with how it’s become an almost single-issue party — that issue being promoting the settlements,” he says. “They’ve basically handed over the entire social agenda to parties on the left.”

The "parliament" in session in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Would he consider voting for a party like Labor, which has prioritized socioeconomic reforms in its platform? “My problem with them is that they would give back part of the Land of Israel,” he says, referring to the West Bank settlements. “They’re too leftist for me.”

‘13 years is too long’

In the old town center, about half a dozen elderly men have gathered at their regular meeting spot — a table outside a lottery stand, where they convene daily for coffee, cigarettes and political banter before placing their bets.

Netanyahu seems to be the clear favorite at this table, at least based on the remarks of some of the more vocal members of this so-called parliament.

As Makhlouf Assouline (no relation to Rachel Assouline), the 67-year-old proprietor of a local car repair shop, notes: “I don’t even have to think. My hand automatically reaches for the Likud slip when I’m behind the booth.” He has lived in Dimona since he moved to Israel from Morocco when he was 4 years old — and has a very long memory.

Hanania Ben-Ari and Simon Azoulay in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I will never forgive or forget what the Labor Party did to us when we came here,” he says, explaining why there is no other option for him but Likud. (Many Mizrahi Jews charge that Labor, which ruled Israel in its early years, discriminated against them while favoring Ashkenazi immigrants from Europe. As evidence, they often cite the policy of settling them in remote areas of the country where far fewer opportunities were available.)

His friend Simon Azoulay, 61, is among the more boisterous members of the gang and proudly notes that his friends call him “Betar” — the name of the Zionist youth movement affiliated with Likud. That’s how big a fan he is of the party, he points out, and its long-standing leader.

Is he bothered at all by the corruption allegations against the prime minister? “Nonsense,” he brushes them off. “Except for cigars and ice cream, what else did he take? Everything else is speculation.”

Hanania Ben-Ari, 73, owns a grocery store in town. It’s hard to know whether to believe him when he says he voted Labor his entire life but will vote Likud for the first time on Tuesday. That’s because the explanation he gives for his change of heart is so bizarre.

“The way I see things, all politicians are going to try to steal given the chance,” he says. “Bibi’s already been caught, so he’s less likely to do it again.”

Shalom Azoulay (no relation to Simon Azoulay), 67, is known among the gang as “Gantz.” That nickname has stuck ever since he decided to break ranks and vote for a party other than Likud: In the last election, he cast his ballot for Kahol Lavan, the party headed by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz.

“I don’t like the fact that Bibi has become all about divide-and-rule,” says Shalom Azoulay, who until his retirement worked at a local fertilizer plant. “Besides that, I don’t think any prime minister should serve more than two terms” (Netanyahu has already served four).

Shalom Azoulay, Yaakov Cohen and Makhlouf Assouline in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

When his relatives found out he had voted for Kahol Lavan, Shalom Azoulay relays, they denounced him as a traitor. “But now they also support Gantz,” he says. Pointing to his friends around the table, he adds: “These guys here, they’re not going to budge. But after the election, I guarantee you, some of them will start to see things differently.”

Some already have. Albert Maloul, for example, says he can’t bring himself to vote Likud again. But neither can he bring himself to vote for a party other than Likud. “So I think I’m just going to stick a blank slip into the ballot box,” he says.

Sami Cohen, who used to work at a famous textile plant in town that has since closed down, is also having second thoughts. “Until three months ago I would never have considered voting for anyone but Likud,” says the 78-year-old who moved here from Algeria as a teenager. “Netanyahu has been doing lots of stupid things lately,” he adds, noting the press conference called by the prime minister in violation of election rules. “But more than that, I don’t like the way his wife, Sara, controls everything.”

Cohen has yet to decide which party he’ll vote for, but says that “13 years is too long for one man to serve as prime minister.”

Another big vote winner in this town is Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party. The party captured 8 percent of the vote here in April, but in previous election rounds it was usually double digits — sometimes as high as 20 percent.

Ari Albilia and his mom, Dina Yifrach, in Dimona, September 12, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ari Albilia, 39, who sports a large white kippa on his head and an assortment of beaded chains around his neck, is a big fan. “For me, only Shas,” he says.

Asked to explain his preference for the party, Albilia — the owner of a small clothing shop — recounts that the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the longtime spiritual leader of Shas, vowed that whoever gives their vote to the party “will be spared on the Day of Judgment.”

His mom is not as easily swayed by promises of salvation. “In April, I voted Likud,” says Dina Yifrach, a tiny woman with startling blue eyes. “But I still don’t know which party I’ll be voting for on Tuesday.” Asked why she is having second thoughts, she responds: “I can’t remember a time when Israeli society was so divided. The Jewish people need unity.”

Yehuda Bezalel in Dimona, September 12, 2019. “If they continue to vote for Bibi, it’s because they don’t see his rivals offering any real alternative.”
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Over coffee at the nearby mall, Yehuda Bezalel, a member of the local council, insists it is a misconception that people in Dimona vote almost automatically for Likud. “If they continue to vote for Bibi, it’s because they don’t see his rivals offering any real alternative,” says Bezalel, 36, who heads the Young Dimona slate and works as a real estate and mortgage consultant.

He has never voted Likud, instead casting his vote in the last election for the center-right Kulanu (which has since merged with Likud). This is the first time, he says, that he is still undecided this close to Election Day.

Not that he lacks a general direction. “I’m clearly going to vote for a party on the right,” he says. “To me, the left — with its obsession with Bibi — has completely lost it.”