In a Deeply Split Israel City, Both Sides Urge Unity

In a Deeply Split Israel City, Both Sides Urge Unity

ROSH HAAYIN, Israel — On one side of town, it’s falafel and observing Shabbat. On the other, it’s sushi and the yearning for a Saturday morning coffee at a local cafe. Both sides can be guilty of insularity and snobbery.

The identity and culture wars that were fought in the two recent Israeli elections — both of which ended in indecisive deadlocks — have long been playing out in a split city of about 50,000 people that sits in the middle of the country.

Rosh Haayin almost perfectly reflects the political divide that has paralyzed Israel after the two elections, one in September, the other in April.

In last month’s vote, 34.7 percent of the city’s residents voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party; 34.6 percent voted for the main opposition, the centrist Blue and White alliance.

Rosh Haayin, east of Tel Aviv on the border of the West Bank, is a hung city in a hung country where a postelection political crisis is dragging on.

The old town of Rosh Haayin grew out of a muddy tent camp for mostly poor Jews airlifted from Yemen soon after Israel was founded in 1948. Its low-rise commercial center, with its spice store and barber shops, has barely changed since the 1950s. A traditional, blue-collar stronghold of largely religious immigrants and their descendants, it leans heavily to the right.

On the higher ground to the east, neighborhoods of single-family and semidetached homes that sprung up in the early 1990s as housing projects for army officers are bastions of a more ethnically mixed, middle-class, liberal and secular Israel that votes center-left.

Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff and Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival to lead the country, lives on a quiet road near a small, modern mall in this part of the city. And the eastern districts are now rapidly expanding with even newer developments of shiny apartment blocks popular with upwardly mobile young families from the Tel Aviv area.

“It’s as if they were two separate towns,” said Masha Sherman, 36, a software engineer who works for a company that collects election data. She calls them “Israel” and “Yemen.”

After the two inconclusive elections, Ms. Sherman, like many voters on both sides of the lines in Rosh Haayin, and in the rest of the country, said the only way out of the morass was for the two major parties to join forces in a national unity government.

“I want a moderate government, without extremists, without incitement and if possible without corruption,” said Ms. Sherman, a resident of new Rosh Haayin. “I’m always for unity, and not only in politics.”

Both Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, and Mr. Gantz, a relative political neophyte, say they, too, want a unity government.

But after years of increasingly right-wing and religious governments led by Mr. Netanyahu, who is also facing a looming indictment for graft, efforts to form a grand coalition remain stuck as the two sides have not overcome their initial disagreements, including over who should serve first as prime minister under any rotation agreement

Neither side won enough support to build a majority coalition in the 120-seat Parliament. Blue and White won 33 seats, edging ahead of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud with 32. But Mr. Netanyahu won the endorsements of 55 members of Parliament for the premiership, to Mr. Gantz’s 54.

Mr. Netanyahu was given the first chance to try to form a government, but he may soon turn over that task to Mr. Gantz, who will have an equally small chance of success. This has lead to talk of a third election that few Israelis want.

Unfazed by the cloud of corruption hovering over Mr. Netanyahu, many in old Rosh Haayin still express die-hard support for him.

“We are a small country and we have to protect it,” said Shuki Amran, 60, a picture framer, who worries the Blue and White party leader doesn’t have enough experience. “With all due respect to Gantz’s army career, he needs some brewing.”

Mr. Amran, whose parents came from Yemen, added that “nobody is completely pure” and blamed Mr. Netanyahu’s predicament on the liberal Israeli news media.

But he, too, backed the idea of a unity government, saying Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz “should both bow down a bit and get together,” to end the political logjam.

And while the town’s two populations may differ sharply on political questions, there is intermingling.

“There is actually a connection with the new population — they like the atmosphere here,” Mr. Amran said, speaking in his small workshop in the old city. “But some turn their noses up. What can you do?”

One of the places in Rosh Haayin where the two sides come together is the Yadai Bakery, where customers buy traditional Yemenite breads like lahoh and jahnoon.

A bakery worker, Rachel Haymi, 67, whose parents came from Yemen, said her circumstances had only improved since Likud first came to power in 1977, in part by riding on a tide of resentment of Jewish immigrants from Arab lands and their descendants. Those immigrants felt patronized and discriminated against by Israel’s founders, who had hailed from Europe.

Ms. Haymi marveled that “Yemenites” like her, as she described herself, were now going abroad on organized tours to Europe, the United States and Thailand.

But for all the economic advances of recent years, she said she preferred life in Rosh Haayin before it expanded and diversified, adding, “We are all family down here,” referring to the old town.

A customer from “the hills,” Motti Barak, 72, who voted for the left-wing Meretz party, said Mr. Netanyahu should be kicked out on moral grounds. But he also favors a coalition. “There’s no choice but a unity government split 50/50.”

One of the main story lines in Israeli politics in this polarized year was a fissure in Mr. Netanyahu’s former coalition between the ultrareligious right and the secular right.

Some of that same tension between secular and religious Jews has become an issue in recent years in Rosh Haayin, where more traditional representatives in city hall have resisted calls for cafes or other businesses in the new part to be open on the Sabbath.

But unlike the politicians on the national stage, the disparate parts of Rosh Haayin have found ways to unite.

Pupils from both sides of town study together at the city’s only secular high school, named for Menachem Begin, the Likud founder. Uzi Cohen, who runs the renowned Falafel Hatuka, said his customers were split half and half between Blue and White and Likud. At Tabak Express, a nargila bar in the old center, young adults from both sides sit together for a drink or a smoke.

A former mayor from the new side of town, whose residents now make up the majority of the city’s population, built a music conservatory and symphony that opened about a decade ago in the old quarter, amid the scores of neighborhood synagogues.

Yiska Raveh, 58, who works at Rosh Haayin’s Museum of the Heritage of Yemenite Jewry and the Heritage of the City, has made an effort to recruit volunteers from both sides of town.

“I will not ignore that there is tension, but that is not exclusive to this place,” she said. “You feel it around Israel.”

“But when you have contact the barriers fall,” she said, adding, “Unity does not mean losing your identity.”

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