Elections? What Elections?

On the eve of the second Sukkot holiday, Vladimir stood under a sign that read Pekarny Teimany (Yemenite Bakery) in Russian, in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood market. After five years in the neighborhood, Vladimir sums up the cultural and gastronomic experience thusly: "Europe is there, Asia is here."

During those five years, Vladimir, a great cook in his own right, has learned to love hummus and falafel, and even eats shawarma, but only on a plate with Russian bread. Even this despicable habit, which even multiculturalism cannot justify, does not damage his excellent relations with his neighbors and the peddlers.

Vladimir is something of a phenomenon: The masseur and therapist for the Dynamo Moskva football team has built up quite a sizable fan club here. Athletes from all over the country find him. He is happy to speak about all of this, and it is only when we get to politics that he starts mincing words.

"My heart is with the Likud," he says joylessly. "I don't know whom I'll vote for." He doesn't seem troubled by this. Vladimir is one of some 3,000 Russian-speakers who have settled in the Hatikva neighborhood, and now make up a quarter of its inhabitants. In the market, Odessa Vodka now dwells happily alongside Tomer's Pomegranate juice, and dried moyva fish appears alongside Emek cheese.

Vladimir's complete lack of interest in national politics is representative. Torching Arab homes in the neighborhood does not fall under the heading "politics." Municipal elections used to raise a storm here, but two and a half weeks before the poll, you wouldn't know elections were approaching. The matter is confined to the party branch offices alone. The candidates and their supporters are aflutter, but the atmosphere has skipped right over "the people."

Israeli politics has been canceled for lack of interest. Last week we met to discuss all this at the local Likud branch office. When there isn't a campaign going on, the place serves as a party branch and a social club for neighborhood Russian speakers. Now it is being used by the campaign alone, but since most of the Russians are in any case Likudniks, this is not really a contradiction.

"We have made an effort to integrate the Russian speakers, and we have succeeded. They are represented in all the neighborhood institutions," proudly notes Shlomo Maslawi, who has been chairman of the Hatikva neighborhood committee for 18 years and is a third-term member of the Tel Aviv municipal council.

Maslawi faces a double difficulty: the general apathy toward politics, and the loss of the natural support the Likud had when MK Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister. Maslawi is trying to bring back the neighborhood renewal program that has nearly vanished, in order to blur the clear border between Tel Aviv's northern and southern neighborhoods.

"Bibi's economic policy ruined quite a lot for us," he admits. "Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying."

"We explain to people that without Bibi's economic policy, the country's economic situation would be a lot worse today," says Roman Borochov defensively. He is the chairman of the neighborhood Likud council, and immigrated to Israel in 1991. He also has no doubt that the situation can, and must, be rectified. Now he is helping Maslawi in his election campaign.

"The local elections are a test before the national elections," he explains to the recalcitrant, persuading them that what happens in the Hatikva neighborhood and in Tel Aviv will be a precedent for what happens in the general elections.

This works very well indeed when they note how they took Shaul Mofaz (now transportation minister) for a tour of Hatikva only one day before he defected from Likud to Kadima, a party that barely exists in the neighborhood. This works less well in terms of the connection between local politics and national politics.

"Bibi did good for the state of Israel but he did bad for the people of Israel," says Yehiel Amitai, who used to be a zealous Likudnik. Now he defines himself as "a sane Likudnik," one who has replaced "both banks of the Jordan [from the Likud anthem] with both banks of the Yarkon." As the neighborhood administrative director in the local elections, he is eager to help Maslawi. Netanyahu is a completely different story.

However, the Likud has not lost all hope. Netanyahu, the opposition leader, more than once visited the Likud branch in the Hatikva neighborhood when it served as an immigrants' club, and was greeted with great love. The immigrants here are mostly women who come for activities, and Bibi is still king here.

Hannah Zorokof is in charge of activities at the club. Zorokof immigrated from Bukhara and is a matchmaker in the community matchmaking bureau established by Lev Leviev's wife, Olga. Thus far she has married off 50 couples, including divorced people, who hardly stood a chance in this conservative community. Even on her way here, two people on the bus approached her, looking for matches, and she already has a good idea. Olga Leviev gave her a certificate recognizing her for her contribution to the community. With qualifications like that, it is no wonder that she has succeeded in matching Netanyahu with immigrant single mothers, who have been especially hurt by his policies.

Politically, the Likud benefits here from the absence of alternatives. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is now trying to put together a Kadima-led government, is considered a traitor to her Likud origins, and Kadima does not exist in the Hatikva neighborhood. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is unmentionable, even though his Labor Party's national headquarters are in this very neighborhood.

"The neighborhoods" used to be a synonym for strong, even frightening, political passions. A decade ago, for example, Lieutenant General (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak was pelted with tomatoes when he came to tour the neighborhood on the way to establishing the (now defunct) Center Party. This is no longer the case.

In the no-elections atmosphere, here and there are posters for mayoral candidate Dov Khenin, a Hadash MK. Thy hang undisturbed, as though this were something perfectly natural here. For 35 years his mother, Shula, ran a kindergarten in the neighborhood. Three generations of right-wing, religious residents would leave their children in the devoted hands of "Shula the Communist," who never concealed her opinions but also knew how to keep them separate from her devoted childcare.

The most recent public opinion poll by the local weekly Zman Tel Aviv found Khenin isn't benefiting from his mother's past. In the southern neighborhoods he has only 10 percent of the vote, one-quarter of the support that incumbent mayor Ron Huldai has, and half the support Khenin has in the center of town, where the yuppies live.

"It's true that the posters aren't being torn down, but even amid the general apathy it is easy to incite, especially if it comes from top Likud people," says Maslawi. "Anyway, it seems to me that in the general elections they wouldn't be tearing down his posters immediately."

Borochov says, "If I were Khenin's elections advisor, I would suggest he not take a stroll around the market. This could be not only unpleasant, but even humiliating."

"This is the first time that lack of confidence in the national leadership has trickled down to the municipal elections," says Maslawi. Borochov says that as he goes canvassing for Maslawi, "it isn't enough to remind people that 'the elections are soon.' It isn't even enough to tell people that it is important to demonstrate the Likud's strength before the general elections. What does work is saying that Shlomo Maslawi from the Likud is very important to us."

Everything is personal. "The new politics" that the ruling party wanted to instill has never looked older. Without an ideology and without leaders, people follow the intermediary. The "fieldworker" becomes the most important person in the system. If people don't go out to vote thanks to the "big guns," they will perhaps go out and vote due to a personal interest or as a favor to a friend. With an infrastructure of this sort, there is no way the Kadima party could have arisen today.

At the end of the conversation, we accompanied Maslawi on a tour of the market. Maslawi is a well-known and well-liked neighborhood native, but only one person addressed him with a request regarding sewage. Next to Yoram Levinstein's Acting Studio, which has set up shop in the middle of the market, and is bringing a new kind of tenant to the neighborhood, a motorcyclist stopped near us, only to say he does not intend to vote: not for the Knesset, not for the municipality, not for mayor, not for prime minister. For him, it was worth it to take off his helmet in order to express his protest, before he zoomed away with a deafening noise.