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Israelis head to the polls with a choice: right or righter

The left has been conspicuously absent from the conversation.

by Amel Guettatfi and Hind Hassan
Apr 8 2019, 3:44pm

SDEROT, Israel — Eyal Hajbi has been on high alert since a rocket launched from Gaza landed near Tel Aviv two weeks ago. As the official responsible for the security of the 25,000 people living in Sderot, a village less than a mile off the fence with Gaza, rockets are virtually all Hajbi has thought about.

Well, rockets and Israel’s elections this Tuesday. And like a lot of Israelis here, Hajbi has already made up his mind: He’s voting for Likud, the party of four-term prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He supports Netanyahu’s tough stance toward Palestinians and security, and his increasingly right-wing views about the future of Israel.

“I love how he represents us in the world,” Hajbi told VICE News. “I have only one view: one state. The whole land of Israel. We shouldn't give up on any part of it.”

But Israelis like Hajbi who live close to Gaza are far from the only ones turning out for Netanyahu. Despite mounting bribery and corruption charges, and a recent alliance with outwardly racist politicians, Netanyahu enjoys overwhelming support across the country ahead of Tuesday's elections.

His party’s only real challenger is from a newly-formed centrist alliance called Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, who’s framing himself as a Bibi without the baggage. “I think we will be able to unify the country by far more than what Netanyahu is doing right now,” Gantz told VICE News.

But don’t mistake Gantz for a left-wing alternative to Netanyahu’s increasingly right-wing rule. At an event for English-speaking voters in Tel Aviv last week, Gantz suggested Blue and White would try to copy the prime minister’s strategy, and partner with hard-line right-wing religious parties to form a governing majority.

As for the traditional left, it’s been conspicuously absent from the conversation. There’s a reason for that: Only 12 percent of Israelis now identify as left-wing, according to a recent survey.

For the country’s last bonafide left-wing prime minister, Ehud Barak, this is a frustrating development. Barak's concerned about what the absence of a strong left has done to Israel’s national politics, including the effect it’s had on Netanyahu, a politician he once served beside in the army.

“He was a good soldier, a good officer. Sometimes I think if I had convinced him to stay in the military, maybe he would have done a lot less damage to Israel,” Barak told VICE News.

Barak was the last prime minister candidate to oust Netanyahu from office in 1999. But since then, Bibi has held onto power, in part by moving Israeli politics farther and farther to the right. Most recently he formed an alliance with an ultra-nationalist extremist right-wing party called Jewish Power, that was inspired by Meir Kahane, who advocated for the forced removal of Palestinians.

“He was a good soldier, a good officer, sometimes I think if I had convinced him to stay in the military, maybe he would have done a lot less damage to Israel.”

“Bibi, under the pressure, and because of his own interest, finds himself in a situation where those zealots, crazy racist zealots are dictating to him how to run the government and they are blocking the democratic life of Israel, and that should be rejected by the people.”

Now more than ever, as Israel continues to move to the right, Barak says a strong opposition is necessary to start a difficult conversation, even if they can’t defeat Netanyahu’s coalition.

“Sometimes the people are wrong. Someone has to help them to open their eyes. It is usually the opposition.”

This segment originally aired April 5, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Shot by Daniel Bateman and edited by Andrew Pattison. Oren Rosenfeld contributed to this reporting.

Cover: A man walks by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside the Blue and White party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Yaalon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, April 7, 2019. Hebrew on billboards reads, left "Strong Likud strong Israel" on the right "Every vote matters, win Blue and White". (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)