KIRYAT GAT, Israel—Three years ago, Israel's conservative Likud party could bank on solid backing from working-class towns such as this one, much as Republicans in the United States count on Wyoming, Indiana and Texas.
But this election season there's little good will here for the party's standard-bearer, Benjamin Netanyahu, who's trying to lead his fractured party back to relevance in a nation that's moving away from Likud's right-wing policies.
With few jobs and fewer opportunities, many voters in this struggling southern Israeli town look at Netanyahu not as the man who'll save them from terrorism but as the one who betrayed them while serving as finance minister, by slashing government aid for the poor as part of his economic-recovery plan.
"In Kiryat Gat, we feel that we are his victims," said Yitzhak Feldman, a guard at a shopping mall. "His philosophy as finance minister was to step on the poor. You can't perform an operation without anesthetic. He operated too quickly, too painfully and without anesthetic."
While terrorism dominates the political agenda in Israel, the economic troubles of places such as Kiryat Gat are playing a strong role this year as Israelis prepare to select a prime minister Tuesday to succeed the comatose Ariel Sharon, who had a stroke on Jan. 4.
A recent poll by the daily newspaper Ma'ariv showed that in working-class towns such as this one Likud has slipped to third place, behind the newly formed Kadima party and the left-leaning Labor party. That's a complete reversal from the last election in 2003, when Likud secured as much as four times as many votes as Labor in this region.
"For someone who doesn't have anything to eat it's hard for them to think about the Palestinians," said Michael Gabay, Kiryat Gat's deputy mayor, who left Likud to join Kadima.
The shifts taking place this year in Kiryat Gat reflect a political realignment in Israel. Polls suggest that Kadima will win nearly twice as many seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as either Likud or Labor.
With Likud struggling to reassert itself, even some within the party think that the U.S.-educated Netanyahu, who's been a driving force in his party since the early 1990s and was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, may have been the wrong person to lead the ticket.
It was Netanyahu's vocal opposition to Sharon's plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza and his attempted ouster of Sharon as Likud leader that sparked Sharon to form Kadima, which quickly siphoned off much of Likud's talent.
Netanyahu's campaign argument that the Gaza pullout triggered the stunning election victory of the Islamist militant group Hamas in January's Palestinian elections has found few supporters among Israelis, for whom the Gaza pullout remains immensely popular.
The hostility toward Netanyahu in places such as Kiryat Gat adds to that burden.
He also alienated another potential Likud constituency, religious Jews, by cutting subsidies for Israelis who had five or more children. Religious Jews tend to have large families.
Netanyahu has been trying to address the criticism in the waning days of the campaign. On Tuesday, he appealed for skeptics to understand the difficult circumstances he confronted as finance minister.
"I could have refused to take the role upon myself or do nothing, and I would have been very popular," he told supporters, according to the Ynetnews Web site. "It was difficult, but we were forced to, we had to take the steps in order to save the state. And to those who are angry I say, `We came to save you and today we have to save the state.'"
But such appeals aren't likely to change many minds here, where even the region's economic success story—a new Intel complex on the outskirts of town—has largely passed them by and the textile factories that had provided work are dying.
Unemployment here is officially 12 percent, but Deputy Mayor Gabay said it probably was closer to 17 percent.
That's true in many of Israel's nearly 30 so-called "development towns," founded since World War II as communities for new immigrants. While a few succeeded, most quickly fell into an economic morass as successive governments neglected their development. Today, the depressed towns are home to about 600,000 residents—about 8 percent of Israel's population—many of whom feel bitter.
"It's a cemetery here," said a 60-year-old former metalworker who gave his name only as Sami. "Kiryat Gat used to be a much livelier city. Now it's like a retirement home."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Netanyahu
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Kiryat Gat
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060320 Israel election, 20060322 Israel polls20051220 Israel politics
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051220 Israel politics
Need to map