Political Reality Changes in Israeli Towns

YERUHAM, Israel (AP) — Israel’s latest political earthquake is playing out in places like this neglected desert town, founded for North African immigrants and until recently a stronghold of the hardline Likud Party.

After Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolted Likud and set up a more moderate party and the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz took over the dovish Labor Party, Likud loyalists are seriously looking at other options in the March 28 general election.

“We gave them (Likud) our trust and nothing happened,” said Yeruham resident Yigal Avitan, 32. “It’s time to give someone else a chance.”

In 1977, remote development towns like Yeruham helped Likud wrestle the reins of power from Labor, which controlled Israeli politics for its first 29 years of the country’s existence. They have continued to support Likud ever since.

But one sign of the shifting sands was the enthusiastic welcome here for Amram Mitzna, a former Labor Party leader who unexpectedly left parliament earlier this month to become mayor of Yeruham. Labor was despised by many in the town as a bastion of Israel’s European-born elite which in the 1950s sent immigrants to live in remote areas.

Yet Mitzna, seated in an outdoor restaurant this week, could barely take a bite of his food as well-wishers stopped at his table, patted him on the back and thanked him for coming to save their forgotten town, 70 miles south of Jerusalem.

Mitzna said he just wanted to improve life in Yeruham, but changing Labor’s image could be a side benefit.

“I assume the mere fact that I am here will help people say ‘look, here is Mitzna, he’s a Labor party man, and if he comes down here, maybe Labor isn’t as elitist as we thought it was’,” he said.

Yeruham was founded in 1951 and has consistently ranked near the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic ladder. Eleven percent of the 9,400 residents are unemployed, 27 percent are on welfare and many more are barely scraping by.

In the 2003 general elections, when Mitzna was Labor’s candidate for prime minister, the party only got 5 percent of the vote in Yeruham. An overwhelming majority supported Likud and the other right-wing parties.

This month, however, Likud’s historic alliance with Israel’s working class was broken, in part because of the takeover of Labor by Peretz, a folksy union boss. Peretz, a former mayor of Sderot, another development town, is seen as a champion of Israel’s poor.

Following Sharon’s departure from Likud, nationwide polls predict Likud crashing to as low at 10 of the 120 seats in parliament, down from the 38 it holds now.

In Yeruham, support for Likud is also dwindling, in part because the cash-strapped municipality has trouble providing even the most basic services. The community centers had to shut down for six months, town employees have not been paid for two months, and the electric company shut off the lights of the municipal soccer field.

“Yeruham is tired of promises. We’ve been promised everything. We want action, not words,” said Guy Alaloof, 32, who owns a bakery across from City Hall. “Likud has nothing to offer.”

David Malool, 27, who works as a barber in the central square, where many stores are shuttered and bankrupt, said he always voted Likud, but is now wavering.

The father of two said he could not vote for Likud’s outgoing Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the front-runner to replace Sharon as Likud leader. Malool said Netanyahu’s harsh economic measures, including sweeping cuts in welfare spending, crippled Yeruham.

Malool said he could not vote for Sharon, either, because he opposed the prime minister’s pullout from Gaza this summer. But he said he still has a hard time considering Labor, despite sympathies for Peretz.

Gila Dahan, an unemployed mother of five, said she would not vote because she does not think it would make a difference for her and her unemployed husband.

Listening to the debate outside her empty clothing store, Ziva Swissa was in less of a quandary.

“Only Likud,” she said. “I’ve always been Likud and always will be.”

But when it came to her neglected hometown, she looked at the new mayor as a savior.

“I salute Mitzna for what he has done,” she said. “Only Mitzna can help us now.”