Israel Election Results: Despite Anti-establishment Protests, the Ethiopian Vote Went to Likud

Kahol Lavan defector Gadi Yevarkan said he brought the community along with him to Likud – but the youth are with Gantz's party, former colleague says

Likud activists outside a polling stations in Rehovot, Israel, March 2, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

Solomon Teka was killed by an off-duty police officer in June 2019 in the Kiryat Haim suburb of Haifa. The incident hit a raw nerve among the Ethiopian community in Israel, joining a long list of confrontations between people of Ethiopian descent and police.

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Among them were the cases of Yehuda Biagda, a mentally ill young man who attacked a police officer with a knife and was shot and killed, and Demas Fekadeh, a soldier in uniform who was beaten by police for no reason. Within days after Teka’s death, thousands came out into the streets to protest against the treatment of the community and some 200 were arrested.

Despite these incidents, the Ethiopian Israeli vote for Likud, the party in power at the time of these killings, increased in Monday’s election.

Officially, there were 151,000 Ethiopian-Israelis in the country at the end of 2018, though many community activists say the true figure is higher. About 38 percent of the Ethiopian community lives in the center of the country and 25 percent in the south. The largest local community is in Netanya, with 11,000 members, while Kiryat Malakhi has the highest percentage among Israeli towns: 16.3 percent of the city’s population is of Ethiopian origin. A look at five neighborhoods with large Ethiopian Jewish populations shows that Kahol Lavan lost votes there – but not as steeply as feared in light of Netanyahu’s aggressive campaign.

At 10 A.M. on Election Day, Gadi Yevarkan, an Ethiopian Israeli and former Kahol Lavan MK who defected to Likud during the campaign, received the first personal call from Netanyahu, who asked him to post a message on social media aimed specifically at the Ethiopian community. Yevarkan opened his day in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Rehovot, the city where he lives. In the September 2019 election, support for Likud fell by 11 percent in the neighborhood, but this time it rose by 17 percent. The second call from the prime minister came before noon.

Netanyahu together with Gadi Yevarkan, an Ethiopian Israeli who was elected to the last Knesset as part of Kahol Lavan but recently jumped ship to Likud.
Likud spokesperson

Netanyahu expended great effort in wooing the community: He participated in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony a week earlier in Rehovot, the government brought 43 members of the Falashmura community to Israel from Ethiopia just a week before the election, and Yevarkan himself was honored and had his picture on Likud campaign signs.

Outside the polling stations in Kiryat Moshe, campaign workers for both parties could be seen joking with each other; Yevarkan embraced Kahol Lavan workers who were his supporters not very long ago. One said the next step was to sign up as a Likud member and for the community to become a center of power within the party. Yevarkan estimated the community was worth four Knesset seats, and that he personally had brought two and a half to three of them with him to Likud.

Yevarkan is convinced that the Ethiopian voters “who returned home” to Likud are those who are responsible for the stalemate of the previous elections and the ones who now have brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu close to forming a new government.

However, Kahol Lavan MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, also of Ethiopian origin, says Netanyahu did not win the victory he wanted so much, because the younger members of the Ethiopian community followed her and voted for Kahol Lavan.

Tamano-Shata began her day in Petah Tikva and from there went to Kiryat Malachi. Likud’s patronizing of the community is unbearable, and Yevarkan is seen only as a vote contractor, she told Haaretz. “It’s not smart to be sectoral. I’m no less an Israeli leader than [MK] Itzik Shmuli or Stav Shaffir,” she said. The Ethiopians are Israeli citizens and should be treated as individuals and not just as an ethnic group. “Everyone needs to deal with these issues. I don’t have a monopoly on the community,” Tamano-Shata said.

Solomon Teka's family at the at the scene of the shooting, Kiryat Haim, israel, January 23, 2020
Amir Levi

After the election results were released, Kahol Lavan said it had eaten into the Likud’s hold on the Ethiopian community. “The Likud monopoly on the community was broken in the last elections and you can see it,” said Tamano-Shata. She said young people, those who went out and protested and saw how Netanyahu ignored them, stuck with Kahol Lavan. “In the past two months, Netanyahu became an Ethiopian, and our decline was because of him and not because of Yevarkan,” she said.

But Mamo Avraham from Kiryat Malachi said it was Yevarkan who had led him to vote Likud. Coming to Israel in 1984, Avraham at first had voted for Labor, but he did not vote in the September election, and voted Likud on Monday for the first time because of Yevarkan, he said. Avraham said many Ethiopian Israelis voted for Kahol Lavan in the previous election in response to the police violence and racism, “but now they realized they had made a mistake and returned with [Yevarkan] to Likud.”

In any case, many community leaders don’t have much hope for the campaign promises made by politicians, and must make use their electoral power for their own advantage.