Some Israelis reconsidering their support for Netanyahu

Voters in Tel Aviv suburb shed light on issues affecting middle class

May 09, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RISHON LE ZIYYON, Israel -- The Likud party faithful waited more than an hour in a gaily decorated hall for the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They chanted his nickname with the fervor of soccer fans. They sang his praises as a defender of Jerusalem. During the ruckus, they were told of the stakes in the May 17 election.

"You can imagine what will happen if the left comes to power. Not only will you and I become second-class citizens, we'll pay a heavy political price," said Hananya Gibstein, the former mayor of this Tel Aviv suburb.

Sitting in the hall's balcony among hundreds of cheering teen-agers, Aharon Alfassi got the message amid the merriment: The prime minister is fighting to keep his job.

"The race is very close. I can smell it," said the 70-year-old retired aviation technician. "People are not happy about the situation."

With polls showing Netanyahu's main challenger, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, leading by six to 10 percentage points, the chance that the prime minister could lose outright May 17 or in a runoff June 1 suddenly seems a possibility.

If not a probability.

Middle class concerns

The election contest is likely to come down to cities like Rishon Le Ziyyon. The city of 203,000 residents offers an inside look at the election forces at play among Israel's middle-class communities and the battle among Labor and Likud to win them.

"We're not happy with what's happening in the field," Zvi Gov-Ari, a Likud leader told the Rishon rally. "We're too complacent. It's a stubborn struggle."

In 1996, Netanyahu won by less than 1 percent. In Rishon Le Ziyyon, he won by the same slim margin. On the night of the Netanyahu rally, Labor and Likud workers staked out their ground at busy intersections.

Banners for both candidates hung from windows and street railings. "Only Netanyahu" read one. The message from the Barak camp was this: "Israel Doesn't Make the Same Mistake Twice."

Founded as a farming village 66 years before Israel was declared a state, Rishon set about making wine with the financial help of Baron de Rothschild. The Rishon Le Ziyyon wine cellar still occupies a major intersection of the city. But the city also boasts a high-tech industrial park, a college and a symphony orchestra.

More than 60 percent of its residents work within the city limits, which stretch from the coastal plain to the Mediterranean Sea.

The lyrics of Israel's national anthem, "Ha Tikva," were penned here. But U.S. imports have wedged their way into Rishon's Israeli cityscape: Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken counters anchor the food court in the downtown mall and a Blockbuster video store rents the latest movies at a nearby commercial strip.

Rishon is a city of young families who live in neighborhoods of stucco and red-tile-roof houses and high-rise apartment buildings with a sea view. Among the city's newest residents are 35,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The mayor for the past 16 years, Meir Nitsan, is from the Labor Party. The Labor Party's presence in the city also is reflected in a billboard near Rishon's main shopping thoroughfare. A photograph of the late Yitzhak Rabin carries this simple appeal: "Continue Following in His Footsteps."

Likud has drawing power

Although Likud lost three seats on the City Council in the November municipal elections, the bloc's strength in Rishon could be seen at the Netanyahu rally. About 2,000 supporters were stuck outside because every seat in the hall was taken.

"I came to see Bibi," said Benjamin Tsairi, a 68-year-old lawyer lucky enough to get a seat. "He gives the people and the nation what they want, what they have to have, which is security."

Shai Levy, a 23-year-old civilian employee of the Israeli army, voted for Netanyahu in 1996. And he will again in a week because of the prime minister's tough stand on the peace process.

"You can correct something like unemployment," Levy said, referring to criticism of Netanyahu because of Israel's high jobless rate. "But if you give territories, you can't take them back."

But several Likud supporters interviewed in Rishon last week expressed dissatisfaction with the prime minister.

Netti Struckman, a 74-year-old fruit vendor, and her husband have supported Likud candidates since the party's founding in 1973. She voted for Netanyahu in 1996 but the stalled peace process has upset her.

"Jews aren't interested in anything but peace," said Struckman in between sales of strawberries, melons and eggplants. "The way he [Netanyahu] talked we thought there would be peace. But now there are troubles."

"He says one thing; he does another," the widow said.

A woman at the fruit stand chimed in. "I always voted Likud. After three years, enough now. All the ministers left him. Why not me," she said, referring to Netanyahu and the defection of several Likud ministers.

Then came reality

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