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In Israel, Economic Inequality and Education on Voters’ Minds

Young Israelis campaign for Naftali Bennett. All photos by P.J. Tobia/PBS NewsHour.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Though the outcome of Tuesday’s parliamentary elections may not be much of a mystery, Israelis from many sides of the political spectrum brought their passion to the polls as dawn broke over Tel Aviv.

“Today I feel proud,” said Akanin Yitzak, 53, one of the first voters to cast a ballot at his local polling station, shortly after it opened at 7 a.m. “It doesn’t matter what the results or outcome will be, we’ve already won. We’ve won the appreciation and the respect of our neighbors. And consider that in the Middle East things are often solved differently, people kill each other if they don’t agree on the day of the week. We are voting.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to retain power. According to polls released last week, his right-wing, Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition may win as many as 32 seats, 10 less than it currently holds in the Knesset, but still enough to remain the dominant force of the parliamentary body. Public polling is forbidden in the days leading up to elections here, but 972 Magazine has a handy, interactive breakdown here of the last polls available.

Much of the debate in this election centered on both economic issues and how best to protect this tiny nation from Iran’s growing nuclear capability. Netanyahu has pushed hard to bring the Iran issue to the top of the global agenda, most notably with his speech at the United Nations last fall, which featured a drawing of a bomb representing the progress of Iran’s nuclear development.

Despite Netanyahu’s control of the parliament, he may lose ground today to an even more conservative candidate: Naftali Bennett. Bennett made millions as a software entrepreneur and once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Now, his Jewish Home party platform includes annexing swathes of the west Bank and total rejection of the idea of a Palestinian state. Polls say that the party may become the third-largest bloc in the Knesset.

“Only Bennett says that he will do something and then does it,” said Danny Levy, 40, an orthodox voter who lives in south Tel Aviv’s Shapira district. Levy said that his neighborhood, a gritty warren of narrow streets and low-slung buildings, is a perfect example of what is wrong with Israel.

“All of these Sudanese and Arabs have come here” he said, referring to a recent influx of East African immigrants to Shapira. “They say, ‘This country is for us.’ This country is not for them. This is Eretz Israel and Israel is for Jews.”

But just a few miles north of Shapiro, in a more upscale neighborhood near the beach, voters spoke of social justice issues and equal access to education.

Economist Jonathan Levy, 32, walked out of a polling station there and said he hopes the Israeli public will return its focus to the economic inequality and social-justice issues that sparked mass protests in the summer of 2011. The protests, which included thousands camping along tony Rothschild Boulevard, did shift the public dialogue, but Levy thinks that the changes didn’t go nearly far enough.

“I’m not against capitalism, but to what extent do you take it?” he asked, standing with his wife Omer, 30, who works for an NGO. “It’s a matter of things moving in the wrong direction. … There’s not enough money going to the educational and welfare systems. These are the programs that generate the future of the state.”

Levy voted for Shelly Yachimovich of the Labor party, which polls predict will be the second largest bloc in the parliament.

Israeli voter Suzanne Dadone

For the time-being, Netanyahu remains the status quo.

“We need stability” said Yitzak, the early morning voter. He declined to say who he voted for. “Changes in the stormy waters of the Middle East can be dangerous.”

But what of the social and economic issues that brought so many to the streets?

“You will not find hungry people in Israel,” said Yitzak, who helps run a company that brings medical tourists from Eastern Europe to Israel for health care.

He thinks that those who speak of the difficulty of finding a place to live in Tel Aviv — a major component of 2011’s protests — don’t know how good they have it here.

“An American wouldn’t dream about having his own place in Manhattan. … But Jews? Israelis? We complain if we don’t own a million-dollar property.”

Many voters remarked on Netanyahu’s strength, both militarily and on macro-economic issues.

“Bibi is the strongest leader in Israel, there is not even a second choice,” said Suzanne Dadone, 55, through a translator. She was holding a copy of Israel Today, a pro-Netanyahu daily paper owned by American billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who pumped millions into Republican Mitt Romney’s failed U.S. presidential bid.

Dadone then turned to a poster of Tzipi Livni — a centrist candidate who is not expected to do well in Tuesday’s election — and ripped it off the outside wall of a polling station.

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