He may be trailing in Israel, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a straw poll of sorts in Brooklyn this week. Along a Middle Eastern shopping strip of Brooklyn’s Kings Highway on Monday, native Israelis overwhelmingly gave the Likud incumbent a vote of confidence.
"I am 100 percent for Netanyahu," said Oded Hakabyov, a native of Eilat, now working as a contractor, as he waited for his wife at the Cholon Market. "If Barak wins, Arafat is going to win," said Hakabyov, referring to Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Oded’s wife, Batsheva, said both Barak and Netanyahu were likely to continue ceding territory to the Palestinians. But Netanyahu, she said, is likely to drive a harder bargain. "If he’s going to give something, he’s going to fight for it. Barak is going to give them everything."
That view was common among patrons and employees of such establishments as the Jerusalem Steak House and Bat Yam grocery, some having arrived here as recently as two months ago. None of those interviewed said they planned to return to Israel to vote, although several said they had attempted unsuccessfully to take advantage of discounted flights chartered by partisan groups.
Many were not up to date on the latest political developments in Israel. For instance, few had heard of the controversial remark by a Barak supporter last week disparaging Sephardic Netanyahu loyalists as "riffraff." Although Kings Highway runs through the Orthodox enclave of Midwood, most of those interviewed were not religious.
Behind the counter at Cholon market, Christina Eiferman, a former resident of the Negev, said she supported Netanyahu in 1996. "He didn’t make everything better, but he tries," she said. "He knows how to appeal to people even when he is lying."
Across the street at the Think Sweet cafe, Barak was praised as a good soldier, but a lacking politician.
"If Barak wins we’re going to stay here," said Shlomie Peretz, 24, a salesman originally from Safed. Speaking for his two friends, Peretz declared: "We go with the Likud, it doesn’t matter who they put on top."
"He is a good general, good for the army, but not [to run] the country," said Yakov Ortreger of Tel Aviv. "To me the rule is not to give back the Golan Heights, ever. I fought there, lost all my friends there, and now they are going to give it back."
While no candidate has issued a firm statement that the Golan is non-negotiable, Barak and Center Party leader Yitzchak Mordechai, the former defense minister, have made it clear they are willing to give Syria at least part of the Heights, captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, in return for peace.
The owner of Think Sweet, Mottie Rabinowitz, a Jerusalem native who has been in New York for 35 years, predicted an intense and "dirty" campaign and a triumphant Netanyahu.
"He is the only one suitable to run the country," said Rabinowitz. "The others might have been good army people, but they definitely don’t belong in politics. I consider them non-politicians who should have been very happy with the positions they had"
Next door at the Sababa Pita bakery, however, Netanyahu was panned as catering to the religious parties.
"My family votes for Netanyahu, but I would not," said Inbal, 20, who arrived here in March after completing her army service, and declined to give her last name. "I want to live in a country where nobody tells me what to wear and what to do. There is no connection between how I feel about God and how I feel about the country.
"Barak wants to separate religion and [government]. But [Netanyahu] counts on them for support and promises them things."
Inbal also said that upon her release from the army she was disturbed by the lack of attention to unemployment in the political debates. "People don’t have what to eat, but they still argue that he said this and he said that. They are like children. It makes the country look bad."
Outside Brooklyn, the left-wing approach seems more common among Israelis. Eldar Rapaport, a Manhattan web site producer born in Rishon Letzion, said he favored Barak, in lieu of a prime ministerial candidate from the leftist Meretz party.
"I am for human rights," said Rapaport, 30, who lives in the Hell’s Kitchen area of the West Side. "I hate Bibi and I don’t like Mordechai, and I’m not going to vote for an Arab. That’s what’s left."
Added Eyal Tessler, 30, a catering manager from Kibbutz Tel Yitzchak, "I’m sick of Bibi. I don’t believe a word he says."
Tessler, who lives in Tribeca, said he held Netanyahu responsible for stalling the peace process.
"I think he stopped what [Yitzchak] Rabin started," said Tessler. "We were almost there. We should give [the Palestinians] what they need for their own country. We might as well live in two nice countries."