How Israel’s new government created peace on the Gaza border

3 months ago 20

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Barely two miles separate Alumim from Nahal Oz. Located close to the Gaza border, both these kibbutzim are known to be convenient targets for Hamas rockets and incendiary balloons. And whenever tensions flair between Israel and Gaza, they are among the first to feel it.

As kibbutzim go, both are medium-sized, with around 400 to 500 residents each, and both rely heavily on potato farming.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Religiously and politically, Alumim and Nahal Oz couldn’t be further apart. Alumim is an Orthodox kibbutz, one of about 15 in Israel, while Nahal Oz is proudly secular – like the overwhelming majority of Israel’s 240 or so kibbutzim.

In terms of voter behavior, the two kibbutzim are almost mirror images of one another: In the most recent election, in March, about 80 percent of the vote at Alumim went to parties on the right, while at Nahal Oz about 80 percent went to parties on the center-left. Yamina, the religious, right-wing party headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which literally means “to the right” and won six of the 120 Knesset seats – captured a whopping 60 percent of the vote on Alumim but hardly 6 percent on Nahal Oz. The Labor Party, which won seven Knesset seats, barely took 5 percent of the vote at Alumim but more than a third at Nahal Oz.

It can be safely said that Alumim is a stronghold of the Israeli right and Nahal Oz a stronghold of the Israeli left, and that has almost always been the case.

Yet, four months after Israel’s latest government was sworn in, the almost unimaginable has happened: the two kibbutzim finally have something they can agree on. The right-wingers at Alumim and left-wingers at Nahal Oz are of a single mind that Israel’s so-called “government of change” is a good thing.

There is a palpable sense of relief on both these kibbutzim that the previous government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer, and that the parties they supported were able to put aside their deep ideological differences to form an alternative ruling coalition.

To be sure, the folks at Alumim would have preferred a coalition that does not include an Islamist party in the form of the United Arab List. And the folks at Nahal Oz would certainly have been a whole lot happier had their prime minister been a supporter of the two-state solution and willing to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rather than a prominent champion of the settler movement.

But those are prices they are willing to pay, say kibbutzniks on both sides of the political divide, in order to return a semblance of normalcy to the country and rid it of the divisiveness and toxic discourse that increasingly came to define the Netanyahu era.

“If you want to know what I’m most happy about, it’s that things are quiet now,” says Gabi Ben-Dov, 75, one of the founding members of Alumim. “The level of polarization in this country was starting to get out of hand.”

Gabi Ben-Dov.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Recently retired, Ben-Dov, who used to manage agricultural equipment purchases for his kibbutz, voted for Yamina in the last election. He was among a group of veteran kibbutz members, all Yamina voters, who agreed to share their thoughts about the new government and its prime minister during a recent visit by this reporter.

Ben-Dov believes the establishment of an independent Palestinian state would spell “suicide” for Israel and, therefore, couldn’t be further in his political views from Yankele Cohen, 87, a founding member of Nahal Oz and longtime supporter of Labor and the two-state solution.

Yet, when asked to weigh in on the new government, Cohen – fondly known on his kibbutz as “Mr. Potato” because of his expertise in the said crop – almost repeats Ben-Dov’s words verbatim.

“Things are so much quieter and calmer now,” he says. “As I see it, this has been Bennett’s big success. He’s put something positive back in the air and put an end to all the mud-slinging and incitement that Netanyahu was famous for.”

Kibbutz Nahal Oz's Yankele Cohen.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Other members of this left-leaning kibbutz, who echoed this sentiment during recent conversations, admit that until not that long ago, they could never have imagined themselves speaking this way about a right-wing leader.

‘Feeling of unity’

Israel’s religious Zionist (aka national religious) party, with its roots in the Orthodox Mizrahi movement, has gone through various incarnations over the years. Regardless of what name it ran under, it could always rely on capturing a large share of the vote on the religious kibbutzim. Just before the last election, however, the party split: Yamina, headed by Bennett, would appeal to the more liberal and moderate Orthodox voters; Religious Zionism, a party headed by Bezalel Smotrich, drew a more hard-core element.

Unlike Bennett, Smotrich refused to sit in a coalition with an Arab party, and thereby prevented Netanyahu from forming a government after the last election. This split among the religious Zionists paved the way for Israel’s new government.

Adi Shklar, in charge of field crops at Alumim, comes from a family with deep roots in the religious Zionist movement. After Bennett and Smotrich went their separate ways, like most everyone else on his kibbutz, he aligned himself with Yamina (fewer than 4 percent of voters on Alumim cast their ballots for the Religious Zionism party).

Adi Shklar from Kibbutz Alumim.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

While his fellow kibbutzniks tend to be more circumspect, using terms like “not disappointed” or “satisfied but with concerns” to describe their feelings about the new government, Shklar is almost gushing. “I am very happy with the feeling of unity it has created in this country,” says the 63-year-old. “And just like I’m always happy to sit with my friends at Be’eri [a secular and left-leaning kibbutz on the Gaza border] and Nahal Oz, I’m happy to have my party sitting right now in the same government as Labor and Meretz.”

In principle, he says, he even supports a two-state solution (“So long as we’re talking about a Palestinian state and a Jewish state, rather than a Palestinian state and a state for all its citizens”), but doesn’t believe it will happen in his lifetime.

Like most of his neighbors here on Alumim who support the government, he also has grave concerns about United Arab List and its connections to what he says are some of the more radical elements in the Palestinian national movement. “But you know what? I’m willing to swallow that bitter pill in exchange for a government like this one.”

His neighbor Eran Braverman is above all happy to see the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, out of power for the first time in many years. “For me, the fact that the Haredi parties no longer have the capacity to blackmail the government has made the coalition deal a lot sweeter,” says the 61-year-old carrot grower.

Eran Braverman from Kibbutz Alumim.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

And strange as it may sound, he’s delighted that the Labor Party is part of this new government. “I hate to say it, but when it comes to helping us farmers, the Labor lawmakers have done a lot more for us than Yamina,” he says.

For these Yamina voters, who represent the majority on this kibbutz, it is difficult to fathom the level of hatred directed at Bennett these days among supporters of Netanyahu and Smotrich.

“I grew up on the knees of the national religious movement,” says Avi Fraiman, 65, who runs Alumim’s dairy. “But I would never consider Bennett a traitor, an opportunist or a thief for doing what he did. I don’t understand how they can say such things. What choice did he really have if we were going to avoid yet another election?”

‘Extremely heartwarming’

Down the road at Nahal Oz, Danny Rachamim is serving coffee to a group of neighbors gathered on his porch as the sun begins to set.

“Beyond anything else, I’m thrilled that the previous government is out,” says the 67-year-old veteran kibbutznik, who runs the irrigation system at Nahal Oz.

Danny Rachamim.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

“I’m no fan of Bennett’s,” he adds, “but as far as I’m concerned, anything would have been preferable to the situation that existed beforehand. If the Netanyahu government had stayed in power, we would’ve been on our way to a major catastrophe in this country.”

Rachamim, who voted for Labor in the last election, wasn’t happy when Bennett used his platform at the United Nations General Assembly last month to settle scores with Israel’s health care professionals. Nor did he like the way the novice prime minister has boasted about some of the Mossad’s escapades “in typical Netanyahu fashion.”

“But with all my criticism, I think it was a very smart move on his part not to give in to pressure for more lockdowns, but instead choose a course that allows us to live as normally as possible with the coronavirus,” he says.

Rachamim is also heartened by the way the different government ministries have been working together “for a change for the benefit of the citizens of this country, as they should be.”

Is he upset that Bennett has shown no flexibility on the Palestinian front? “Of course I would have preferred a government that promotes the peace process. But I’m also aware that this was one of the compromises that had to be made in order to form this government,” he responds. “For me, it is extremely heartwarming that, for the first time ever, we have Jews and Arabs sitting in the same government and cooperating. Who could have ever imagined we’d reach this day?”

His 32-year-old daughter, Carine Rachamim, who voted Meretz in the last election, is less upbeat. “Let’s put it this way: members of my generation have lost their faith in politicians,” says the phys-ed instructor. “We’ve been disappointed so many times that it’s hard to be optimistic.”

Carine Rachamim.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

However, she says she draws encouragement from some of the new spending initiatives of the new government in areas close to her heart, like education and sports.

“But when I look at what’s happening with the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, I have much less hope,” she concedes.

Until not that long ago, Sharona Poslushni, 47, always voted for parties on the right. In the last election, she made an exception and cast her ballot for centrist Yesh Atid. “But I’m very happy that Bennett is prime minister,” says Poslushni, who moved to Nahal Oz seven years ago. “I like the fact that we’re all together in this government, that everyone’s trying their best and that there’s lots of goodwill. It just goes to prove that when you stop talking about everything in terms of right and left, it’s possible to reach common ground.”

Sharona Poslushni at Kibbutz Nahal Oz.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

That definitely seems to be the case for Alumim and Nahal Oz. But as Shklar from the religious kibbutz likes to points out, each of these communities went through a different process. “We were happy right from the start with this government,” he says. “After all, Bennett wears a kippa on his head and is one of us. As for our friends at Nahal Oz, they’re happy in retrospect.”

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