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Netanyahu still ‘King Bibi’ on Israel’s margins

At Ramla market, on the eastern outskirts of Tel Aviv and the fringes of Israel’s economic boom, trader Yaakov Matslaoui was not shy about his choice in next week’s election.

“Six pairs of boxers for 50 shekels, and a bonus pair if you vote for Netanyahu,” read a billboard at his stall.

Matslaoui, who smiled under his greying beard as he praised “King Bibi” — veteran Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — is so committed that he has defied a market ban on political posters despite repeated fines.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has traditionally performed well among Israel’s lower middle classes and in “Likudland,” areas left behind by Israel’s economic boom.

It has also attracted support from the Mizrahim, Jewish immigrants from Arab states who arrived in the decades after the Jewish state’s founding, and their descendants, including Matslaoui.

“My brothers, sisters and I grew up eight people to a room,” said the trader, whose father was born in Iraq and mother in Libya.

His family were part of a wave of Jewish migration to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s from the Middle East and North Africa.

The term Mizrahi includes Sephardim, Jews from southern Europe and parts of North Africa and descended from those exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.

Israel in its early years was dominated by Jews with origins in eastern and central Europe, known as Ashkenazim, who formed the country’s founding political class.

Mizrahim, who largely settled on the outskirts of major cities, complained of being marginalized by the Ashkenazim and the left-wing political parties they led.

“The leaders of Mapai humiliated us,” Matslaoui said, referring to the once dominant center-left party that ultimately merged with Labor.

“They wanted to educate us because they thought our culture was inferior,” he added.

“Now it’s their children who are supporting the left and Gantz,” he said, referring to the leader of the centrist Blue and White alliance that is Likud’s main challenger.

Former Likud Prime Minister Menahem Begin, himself Ashekanzi, rose to power in 1977 in part by courting disgruntled Mizrahi voters and appointing members of the community to political jobs.

Moshe Avital, 72, told AFP that when his Moroccan-born parents arrived in Israel they lived in transit camps, temporary accommodation that mainly housed new Mizrahi immigrants in the 1950s.

The camps were a major factor fueling early Sephardi and Mizrahi resentment of the Ashkenazi elite.

“I have always voted Likud because Begin is the one who allowed the Sephardim to raise their heads,” said Avital, who now lives in Sderot, a lower-income town within walking distance of Gaza.

And while Netanyahu’s current tenure has seen widening inequality, trader Matslaoui says economic growth has nevertheless benefited his community.

“My brothers, sisters and I all drive new cars. For that we say ‘thank you Likud,'” he said.

Nissim Mizrachi, a sociology and anthropology professor at Tel Aviv University, told AFP that despite facing disadvantages compared to Israel’s Ashkenazis, Mizrahim have not been won over by the left’s message of economic
equality.

“Assuming that economic factors are decisive is a flawed analysis by liberals, who have failed to capture the masses in Israel and other countries,” he said.

Mizrahi voters and more recent immigrant groups like Russian speakers have felt their Jewish identity threatened by the left’s conception of Israel as “a modern, Western state,” he said.

“Likud gives [Mizrahim] the impression that their individual lives are part of the great history of Israel and the Jewish people,” the professor added.

Mizrachi voters also personally trust Netanyahu and believe “he can defend the interests of Israel and theirs,” he said.

As for the Prime Minister’s upcoming trial on accusations of accepting improper gifts and offering a media mogul benefits in exchange for positive coverage, Matslaoui was dismissive.

“Bibi got cigars and champagne and his wife got some jewelry… So what!” the trader said.

“Bibi is our prince.”