News Analysis: Sephardim, ultra-religious settle scores following Likud victory

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TEL AVIV — In the city's Carmel Market, a raucous outdoor bazaar presided over by hundreds of rough Sephardi vendors, the feeling after the election was of sweet revenge.

"Bibi is king of Israel now. He's going to bust up the left — all the homos," said a man selling tomatoes and cucumbers. "That Yael Dayan — who brought all the homos and lesbians to the Knesset?" said a T-shirt vendor. "And Shulamit Aloni — the Minister of Whores? They're all finished now."

In B'nei Brak, an almost all-haredi (ultra-religious) city near Tel Aviv, a yeshiva student in his 20s said, "Maybe Peres has done some good things, but we don't like the people around him. Most of the left hate everything that has to do with religion."

There are many explanations why Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres for the premiership, and they have ignored all of these voices.

The most popular theory, especially abroad, is that Israelis soured on the peace process because of the winter's Hamas bus bombings. Another is that Peres ran a weak, defensive campaign. Another is that Netanyahu convinced voters that he, too, was pro-peace.

But there is a new theory that cultural factors were also at play — that conservative Israelis turned against Peres not so much because of him or his policies, but because he was identified with people, ideas and a way of life that they see as their enemies.

Conservative Israelis are mainly Sephardim and ultra-religious, known as haredim. The election results showed that working-class Sephardi towns and neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu. In the town of Beit Dagan, east of Tel Aviv, Netanyahu captured 90 percent of the vote. In Jerusalem, dominated by Sephardim and the religious, Netanyahu took 70 percent of the ballots.

"Definitely, what brought Peres down was Meretz — we hate their guts," said a grocery store owner in Givat Olga — like Beit Dagan, a central Israeli backwater — of the left-wing Labor-aligned party.

"We don't hate them personally, just their mentality. They're against Jews. Whatever Judaism says is white, they say it's black."

This Sephardi antipathy to leftist culture was loudly apparent during Netanyahu's victory speech at Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'ooma Convention Center. The event took on the flavor of a soccer match, as a large claque of Sephardim repeatedly interrupted Netanyahu's speech with chants and applause ordinarily reserved for a player who has just scored. When a few people waved posters castigating the media, Netanyahu had to wait while the crowd booed.

Journalists, intellectuals, rock 'n' roll singers, artists, peace demonstrators, civil- rights activists, feminists, homosexuals — these are the hated "Sheinkinites," the secular, "post-Zionist" bohemians who can be found hanging out on Tel Aviv's hip Sheinkin Street. Sheinkin is associated with the left, which means Meretz, which, by association, means Peres.

Another lightning rod for the conservative backlash was Ramat Aviv Gimmel, the upper-class, secular Ashkenazi section of North Tel Aviv. This neighborhood is home to Peres, Leah Rabin, Yael Dayan and other members of Israel's entrenched elite.

"Labor's image these days lies somewhere between Sheinkin and Ramat Aviv Gimmel, which is not a good place to be," said Ya'acov Tsur, the party's outgoing agriculture minister. Labor thought Sephardi bloc voting for the Likud candidate had ended with the 1992 election, when many of them switched to Labor and Yitzhak Rabin.

But the recent election showed Sephardim reverting to form. "This is not going to be easy to reverse," Tsur said.

The blame is falling on Meretz. The party is seen as having been an albatross for Peres in the same way Hillary Clinton was for her husband, until the first lady retreated into the political background.

With a centrist leadership rising in Labor, led by outgoing Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, the call is going out to likewise distance Labor from feminist and religious pluralist Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid and Meretz's other outspoken progressives. Unlike Hillary Clinton, though, Meretz is not about to step aside quietly.

"Labor leaders have this long-standing habit of blaming others for their own failures, instead of accepting the blame themselves and stepping down," said Sarid. He accused Peres and Labor of losing the election "because they didn't put up a fight. We were the only ones to put up a fight."

The virtually unanimous haredi vote for Netanyahu also demands a cultural explanation. Of all Labor politicians, none was so close to the haredim as Peres. He protected their interests — fighting against moves to draft yeshiva students, and ensuring funding for Torah institutions. He kept up excellent ties with powerful rabbis, and was respected by them as a politician who kept his word.

In addition, Peres' wife, Sonia, is a pious woman who consults with rabbis and tirelessly does mitzvot for the sick and needy. By comparison, Netanyahu is thrice married, and an admitted adulterer. No matter — the haredim did everything in their power to bring Peres down.

The Sephardim, most of whom are "traditional" Jews but not strictly observant, along with the more formally religious, felt alienated from the left's idealistic vision of a Middle East where Jews would no longer be surrounded by enemies. They were too suspicious to accept it. They feared the old, insular Jewish ways were being lost, and a rootless, Western-oriented future was being created — a future in which they would be outsiders.

"The `New Middle East' and the `Song of Peace' — these symbols are very foreign to religious and traditional Israelis on the right," said Tel Aviv University Prof. Shlomo Dashan, an expert on haredim and Sephardim.

"These people are prepared to support dovish policies if they are portrayed as serving Israel's and their own personal interests. But this secular messianic notion of peace and harmony in the future was completely rejected by the religious. For them, there is only one Messiah."

Before the 1992 election, Sarid promised that Rabin would be "Meretz-ized." He was right. Rabin, Peres and the Labor Party all were Meretz-ized, becoming more politically leftward in its quest for the peace process. It went over wonderfully with the Israeli left, and in the Arab and Western worlds.

But all the while hundreds of thousands of Israelis were seething — Israelis whose worldview is fiercely anti-leftist, anti-Arab and anti-Western.

Even if there hadn't been a single terror attack since the Oslo Accords, these people still likely would have voted against Peres.