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In Israel’s Poorer Periphery, Legal Woes Don’t Dent Netanyahu’s Appeal
Another former prime minister accused of graft did not fare as well. Ehud Olmert, who originally came from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, was forced out of office under public and political pressure in 2008. Conversely in Mr. Netanyahu’s case, the more sensational the leaks from the investigations, the more popular he seems to grow.
Though a recent coalition crisis was resolved and elections are not scheduled until late 2019, a steady stream of newspaper and television polls have put Likud in front. Those polled consistently chose Mr. Netanyahu as the most suitable candidate, by far, for prime minister.
Reflecting one of Israel’s oldest social divides, many of Likud’s staunchest supporters come from so-called development towns like Kiryat Malachi. These grew out of transit camps hurriedly set up in the 1950s to absorb waves of immigrants, mainly Sephardic Jews from Arab countries.
The country’s Zionist pioneers of European descent, socialists who dominated the state after it was founded in 1948, were struggling to populate the more remote corners of their young and poor country. So they directed the new immigrants to these once-desolate outposts while denigrating their culture.
The tents and shacks gave way to rows of public housing that became hubs for the have-nots on the margins of Israeli society. The development towns have since expanded to include neat neighborhoods of single-family homes and have absorbed immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.
Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the first leader to harness the feelings of resentment among the Sephardic Jews, helping to sweep Likud to its first victory in 1977. The power of the conservative camp has only grown since. But among Netanyahu supporters, the underdog sentiment and distrust of the old, liberal elite still run deep.
Israel has long been polarized between a hawkish right-wing that has taken a harder line toward the Palestinians and a leftist camp more willing to compromise on territory to reach an accommodation.
“The Sephardim in Israel won’t change their skin even if there’s no food in the house,” said the greengrocer, Mr. Ayyash, whose family came from Morocco. He described how his mother would sit in their tin shack with six of her 11 children on her lap to keep them off the wet floor in winter.
Mr. Ayyash said all five of his children, now married, also support Likud.
“It’s genetics,” he said. “I don’t need to tell them anything.”
Like Mr. Begin, Mr. Netanyahu is Ashkenazi, while the current leader of the center-left Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, is the child of Moroccan immigrants. But Netanyahu supporters deride Mr. Gabbay as a political novice and disregard his ethnic origins.
“We are not racists,” Mr. Ayyash said. “We are rightists.”
In the last election in 2015, 41 percent of the voters in Kiryat Malachi voted Likud compared with less than 6 percent for the Zionist Union, made up largely of the Labor Party. In all, about 90 percent cast ballots for right-leaning or religious parties.
“We are all Bibi,” said Erez Madar, 33, a hairdresser in Kiryat Malachi. “Let him have a cigar. He deserves an airplane.”
Moriah Cohen, 24, who works in a store selling modest clothing for religious women, said she will support the prime minister until the end. “There is nobody who can replace him,” she said.
A 40-minute drive south of Kiryat Malachi, the development town of Netivot is famed for its tomb of a venerated Moroccan rabbi, Israel Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Sali. Many residents of the town seem to reserve a similar reverence for Mr. Netanyahu.
“It’s simple,” said Yoram Korkevados, 48, who was working in his family butcher shop, speaking about the polling results. “You see the world support for Bibi? How the economy is flourishing, thank God? And there’s security in the country.”
Mr. Korkevados, who recently took a three-week trip to Morocco to visit his family’s roots, said the Moroccan king has multiple palaces. “And nobody opens their mouth there,” he said.
At an election rally by liberals in Tel Aviv in 2015, Yair Garbuz, an artist, galvanized the anger of the more traditional Sephardic Jews by ridiculing them as “the talisman toters, the pagans and those prostrating themselves in supplication on the tombs of the saints.”
On a recent afternoon, people from different parts of the country came to pray at the tomb of Baba Sali in Netivot. Sara Cohen, a retired kindergarten assistant and a Netanyahu supporter, came in a taxi from the southern city of Beersheba to pray for her health.
“Amulets are also good,” she said. “Sometimes doctors don’t help.”
Iris Gattegno, 48, a member of a well-known kosher cookie manufacturing family, had come by car from Tel Aviv. She shopped at the souvenir store, then, she threw lit candles into a burning pyre while reciting prayers, one of the rituals of the pilgrimage.
“There is nobody like him,” she said of Mr. Netanyahu. “The envy and evil will not prevail,” she added. “God chose him.”
Apsny News English