In Israel, the political Right continues to reign supreme. On March 17th, Israelis reelected Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s Likud party to power. Despite a noisy media opposition and in the face of legions of commentators claiming that Israel’s Left would resurrect, Bibi and the Right prevailed once again. Even a litany of “top” polls the day before the election showed Likud trailing the electoral alliance of Isaac Herzog’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah parties. On Election Day, exit polls from the leading Israeli news channels put the tally at a “surprising” tie between Likud and the Labor-Livni list. However, on election night, the slow tallying of the official vote count brought into focus Bibi and Likud’s political trouncing of the Left. How could so many people get it so wrong?
Most of those who wrongly predicted this latest Israel election (as well as the last few Israeli elections) fail to recognize or accept Israel’s demographic realities. In spring of 2014, I published an article entitled “The Dynamics of Israel’s Democratic Tribalism” in the Middle East Journal. The article puts forth a straightforward method for predicting political and electoral trends in Israel. Centrally, I note: “the Israel of today is not the Israel of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, or Yitzhak Rabin for that matter… Much has changed demographically and thus culturally and ideologically in Israel, and the coming decades promise further change.”
The Israeli electorate consists of seven main sub-national identity groups or “constituencies”: secular-Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent), Mizrahim (Jews of African and Asian descent), religious Mizrahim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, national-Orthodox Jews, olim (Jewish immigrants) from the former-Soviet Union (FSU) and their descendants, and Arab-Israelis (Muslim, Christian, and Druze). Each identity group has a unique collective memory and ideal view of Israel’s future. They maintain distinct preferences regarding the three core components of Israeli national identity: Zionism, democracy, and Judaism. Such distinctions establish the basis of political differences and consequently help explain variation in voter choice. The greatest (albeit gradual) change in the Israeli political landscape over the last few decades relates to the demise of the numerical and thus political strength of the secular-Ashkenazim.
In shaping Israel’s formal and informal political institutions, secular-Ashkenazim laid the cornerstones of national identity. During Israel’s first few decades, the national identity that the Ashkenazi-elite established worked harmoniously with the dominant Ashkenazi populace. The Promethean “ethnic-democracy,” or simultaneously Jewish and democratic state, showed few signs of internal vulnerability. But, as Israel’s population diversified, so did understandings of Israel’s national purpose, political nature, and connection to territory.
After expulsion from Arab states in the 1950s and 1960s, Mizrahi Jews immigrated to Israel en masse. In 1977, Mizrahim made their first major political impact by helping to elect the rightwing Likud party to power for the first time. Mizrahim have since led the charge of political change—seeking an Israel that exchanges Ashkenazi secularism for Mizrahi traditionalism, appreciates the Jewishness and territorial integrity of Jerusalem, and abandons the socialism of Israel’s founders. Over the last few decades, Mizrahi voters have gained allies in FSU-Israelis, national-Orthodox, and remaining revisionist-Zionist Ashkenazim such as Bibi and previous Likud leaders.
As secular-Ashkenazim have continued losing political power to other identity groups, domestic Israeli politics has entered into a state of democratic tribalism. In this socio-political system, distinct ethnic and sectarian groups contest Israel’s national character (See Table 1). The election of rightwing Israeli governments in 2009, 2013, and 2015 illustrate how demographic changes have irrevocably altered the Israeli political landscape.
|GOAL FOR NATIONAL CHARACTER||POLITICAL TRANSLATION||ELECTORAL TRANSLATION
|20% (decreasing)||Secular Ashkenazim||Democracy||Leftwing||Labor-Livni; Yesh Atid; Meretz|
|29% (replacing)||Mizrahim||Zionist (Jewish)||Rightwing||Likud|
|7% (increasing)||Religious Mizrahim||Judaism (Religious)||Religious||Shas; Yachad|
|5.5% (increasing)||Ultra-Orthodox||Judaism (Religious)||Religious||United Torah Judaism|
|4.5% (increasing)||National Orthodox||Zionist (Jewish)||Rightwing||HaBayit HaYehudi;
|13.5% (decreasing)||FSU-Israelis||Zionist (Jewish)||Rightwing||Yisra’el Beitenu; Likud|
|20% (increasing)||Arab-Israelis||Democracy||Leftwing||Joint-Arab List|
Two main demographic phenomena evince Israel’s shift to the Right. The first phenomenon concerns the steady growth of Israel’s Arab citizenry and its demand that Israel forsake its Zionist, i.e. Jewish, character. The second phenomenon stems from the gradual rise of a new dominant voting bloc that forms around the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim and incorporates the general political preferences of FSU-Israelis, revisionist-Zionist Ashkenazim, and national-Orthodox. In short, this rightwing “National Bloc” pursues the predominance of Zionism over competing elements of democracy and Judaism.
A number of events surrounding the March 17th election reflected the new demographic/political realities. The Labor-Livni alliance deceptively adopted the joint list name “Zionist Union” in an attempt to make itself more attractive. Fooling few, Labor-Livni insulted the intelligence of the average Israeli voter by employing the term “Zionist” into its name while promoting policy positions that seek to abandon Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem—territories essential to the revisionist-Zionist narrative.
Notably, even if the Labor-Livni list garnered the most seats in the election, the Left was never going to win. The only way it could have formed a government was if it made the Joint-Arab List a coalition partner; such an unprecedented and unlikely coalition would have entailed bringing into the government a Joint-Arab List that unifies a variety of anti-Zionist Arab and Muslim parties, some of which have members that routinely offer support for Palestinian terrorist organizations and call for the overthrow of the Jewish state. Further, the Joint-Arab List openly stated that it had no desire to take part in a Labor-led government.
The Joint-Arab List also exhibits the dynamics of Israeli politics in another way. My 2014 article predicted that a growing (anti-Zionist) Arab-Israeli voting bloc would work to mobilize the Right. Indeed, on Election Day, in a last-ditch effort to maximize the Right’s turnout, Bibi warned that foreign leftwing entities were “busing” anti-Zionist Arab voters to the polls. In response to the ideological threat and in support of Bibi’s declaration the day before that the establishment of a Palestinian state would not occur on his watch, the Right mobilized further than expected—boosting Israel’s voter turnout to the highest levels since 1999 and guaranteeing a blowout victory.
Bibi and the Right once again stand strong and should feel comfortable in the durability of a National Bloc government for the foreseeable future. Bibi would be well-founded to look across at his political rivals on the Left (whether those sitting in Northern Tel Aviv or Washington D.C.) and quote James Franco’s character from the recent film The Interview: “haters gonna hate and ain’ters gonna ain’t.” Leftists can hate the demographic and thus political reality on ground in Israel all they want, but they “ain’t gonna” change it.
Benjamin Acosta is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at The Ohio State University and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. He has sole-authored articles in the Journal of Politics and the Middle East Journal. For information on Acosta’s research and publications, see www.benjaminacosta.com.