The Israeli Right Wins…Again…Haters Should Get Use To It

Benjamin Acosta

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.



SIZE (2010)





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

The real reason for Obama’s new resolution on ISIS

By Jesse H. Rhodes 

On Wednesday afternoon President Obama sent a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Congress, seeking explicit congressional authority for a limited military campaign against ISIS. The president wants the new authorization to supplement the 2001 AUMF – adopted in the wake of 9/11 – which Obama has already cited as legal authority to conduct military strikes in nations such as Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. He’s also already claimed authority to battle ISIS under the War Powers Resolution.

This raises an interesting question: given that Obama has already interpreted the 2001 AUMF to permit military strikes around the globe, why seek new authority from Congress to battle ISIS?

Over at Vox, Matthew Yglesias has argued that Obama’s main objective in seeking the new resolution is to limit presidential power in national security affairs. According to Yglesias, Obama is deeply concerned with the concentration of power in the executive provided by the 2001 AUMF. While he has been relatively restrained in exercising his authority under the AUMF so far, Obama is fearful that a future president might use the ambiguous terms of the authorization much more aggressively – for example, by “dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram.” As Yglesias notes, Obama’s draft Authorization is a (slight) improvement on the 2001 AUMF: in addition to setting the precedent that new actions should be authorized under a new resolution, it limits the scope of authorized actions and sunsets after three years.

Pointing to these features of the resolution, Yglesias concludes that Obama’s ultimate objective is to “jolt Congress into limiting executive authority…not just his own authority, but his successor’s.” But there are several problems with this argument.

First, as Yglesias notes, the new AUMF would not actually tie the president’s hands as a practical matter. The 2001 AUMF would continue to stand; and, in any case, Obama and his successors would have little trouble creating new justifications for using force beyond the terms of the proposed authorization if they found it necessary or desirable.

Furthermore, Yglesias’ interpretation of Obama’s motives – that Obama wants to hem in future presidents’ room for maneuver in fighting terrorism – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Obama faces the very serious and difficult problem of fighting ISIS right now; it’s unlikely that he’s overly worried with dealing with the longer-term (and much more abstract) problem of excessive presidential power. Furthermore, to the extent that Obama is concerned the scope of presidential power as a general matter, chances are that he would prefer to expand it. After all, one of great lessons of American history is that presidents have relentlessly pushed the envelope in foreign affairs, seeking to concentrate authority in the executive branch. It’s hard to see why Obama would be any different in this regard; indeed, Obama has already pushed the envelope.

Why, then, is Obama requesting a congressional vote for new authority to fight ISIS? Part of the answer is politics, plain and simple. Obama realizes that any fight against ISIS is going to be extremely difficult, involving considerable risks to American soldiers and uncertain prospects of success. The fact that Obama is requesting more authority suggests he believes further military action against ISIS is necessary. The political value of requesting a formal vote on a new resolution is that it forces members of Congress to stand up and register their support or opposition to broadening the fight. In effect, Obama is saying that if members of Congress want to expand the conflict against ISIS, they have to own it: no taking ambiguous positions now, and then criticizing the president later when things don’t go as well as hoped.

This move will have an especially devastating effect on congressional Republicans’ capacity to criticize the president’s dealings with ISIS. Arguably, Republicans’ strongest criticism of Obama to date is that he is weak on national security. Republicans have also been especially vocal in calling for more vigorous action against ISIS. However, if Republicans support the president’s request, they will suddenly lose the ability to mount an effective attack on his policy (unless things go terribly wrong, which of course is possible). Just as George W. Bush made political hay between 2002 and 2005 by attacking as “flip-floppers” Democrats who supported the 2001 AUMF and then criticized his policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama could charge Republicans with hypocrisy if they support his request and then turn against his management of the war.

Interestingly, though, Obama’s request is also good for American politics (though a request for a formal Declaration of War would be much better). As Yglesias notes, most members of Congress would probably prefer to remain ambiguous on this issue, for fear of picking the wrong side and then being punished in a future election. Put frankly, this kind of “blame avoidance” is bad for democracy, because it prevents voters from holding their representatives accountable for the decisions they make. By forcing members of Congress to vote on the authorization, Obama’s request will clarify to voters where their representatives stand on a matter of pressing national concern. This, in turn, can help them make more informed decisions in the voting booth in 2016. Small wonder many representatives aren’t thrilled about voting on the resolution!

In short, Obama isn’t calling for a new AUMF because he thinks he needs it, nor is he doing it because he wants to limit presidential power. Rather, the president’s request is a smart political play, but one that also serves the interests of the political system. If there is going to be a war, the least members of Congress can do is stand up and vote for it.

Jesse Rhodes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of An Education in Politics: The Origins and Evolution of No Child Left Behind. 

The Charlie Hebdo Attack in France and the Possibility of Progress out of Tragedy

French flag

By Jacqueline S. Gehring

Terrorists expounding extreme Islamic beliefs murdered 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo Wednesday. This violence has shocked the world and led to large public demonstrations of grief throughout France. Unfortunately, there have also been attacks on mosques in France, seemingly in retaliation for the terrorist attack. Such violence is only one symptom of widespread Islamaphobia and racism in France that pre-dated the attack.

At this moment of rupture, political leadership can be very important for influencing the response of the state and of the citizenry to the violent event. This is especially the case when fear and anger might increase anti-Muslim sentiment in France, undermining further the sense of common national identity and emphasizing the minority status of French Muslims. Some news outlets and scholars have even speculated that the violence will lead to substantially increased support for France’s far-right party, the National Front, perhaps even leading to the victory of its party in future presidential and parliamentary elections.

It is unlikely that the National Front will achieve such gains, but it will depend on the ability of centrist leaders to exert their influence and provide alternatives to the far-right response, rational and balanced media coverage, and on the willingness of the French people to take a stand against racism and Islamaphobia in their society. Research on other European states has shown that the fear of Islamic terrorism did not lead to the success of far-right parties. Instead, in Spain terrorist attacks right before a major election led to the success of the center-left candidates, and in Britain the fear of terror did not influence parliamentary elections thanks in large part to the more “rational” way the media covered the issue. Furthermore, many political scientists speculate that support for the National Front in the recent European Parliament (EUP) elections will decrease in national elections.

As Shields argues, the successes of the National Front in the European election, and its increased representation at the local level in some small municipalities in France, do not mean that most French citizens actual support the party or its beliefs. Shields cites a 2014 TNS Sofres poll noting that 78% of those polled disagreed with the National Front’s proposed policies and 54% “see the FN as a protest party with no capacity to govern.” Furthermore, the European election suffered from a low turnout rate in France, and is notoriously considered by most political scientists to be a ‘second order election’ which means that it is unclear if voters are simply punishing the party that is in power at the national level, or if they are actually pursuing their true policy preferences. Thus, although this time of crisis has opened a window of opportunity to the National Front, a shift to the far-right among the electorate would be quite surprising.

It would be surprising, but of course it would not be impossible. The National Front has been gaining in popularity according to recent polls about upcoming municipal elections and the 2017 Presidential race. In light of those gains, the response of centrist political leaders, and the media, to the Charlie Hebdo murders is even more important. One excellent first step has been the exclusion of the National Front from a national march of unity planned for this Sunday. The response to the attacks is also an important opportunity for the French public to take a stand against the extensive racism and Islamaphobia in French society as they recognize the murders as acts of terrorism committed by extremists whose actions are condemned by the French Muslim community.

As Erik Bleich has argued, Muslims in France are often targeted not only based on their espoused religion, but also on ethnic markers that suggest they may be of the Muslim faith, thus linking Islamaphobia with racism and ethnic discrimination. Most young Muslim Frenchmen have limited employment prospects because of the entrenched discrimination in French society. It is important to note that although some news stories have framed the presence of Muslims in France as an encroachment by recent immigrants, most French Muslims are French citizens who were born and raised in France. Immigration reform will not take France back to some mythic ethnically and religiously homogenous land of harmony as the National Front suggests. France is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation like most other Western European societies, and it must come to terms with that reality and find a way forward. As I have argued elsewhere, racism and Islamaphobia have been all too central to French policy in the last decade. Fighting ethnic and religious discrimination must be a part of that forward progress. The tragic murders at Charlie Hebdo provide the French people and state an opportunity to turn the violence of this attack into a call to action to further protect the liberty of journalists, satirists, and racial and religious minorities alike.

Jacqueline Gehring is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Allegheny College.  Her work focuses on the law and politics of diversity in Europe, including “Roma and the Limits of Free Movement in Europe” European Journal of Migration and Law, 15 (2013) 7-28 which explores the European response to the French forced expulsions of Roma immigrants.

A Real Cuba Breakthrough Is Tied to Congressional Action


by Brian Alexander

President Obama has announced “a new course on Cuba,” timed to the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross who was imprisoned by the Cuban government since December 2009. Headlines and editorials are suggesting the policy shift is “ushering in a transformational era” and that it “dismantles an artifact of the Cold War”. The president’s new policies and assertion that decades of isolation are “a failed approach,” coupled with the unprecedented phone call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, suggests a historic shift in tone and possibly a new direction in US-Cuba relations.

However, before we all line up to buy vacation condos in Cuba, the President’s move only partially lifts U.S. sanctions, promises shifts in diplomatic relations and bilateral cooperation, eases only some commercial and travel restrictions, and renews the U.S. commitment to supporting democracy in Cuba. Most important, despite enthusiastic claims that “sanctions are coming to an end,” U.S. law prohibits the president from lifting the embargo. The 1996 Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act (a.k.a. “Helms-Burton” after its sponsors), passed in the wake of the Cuban shoot down of two U.S.-based Brothers to the Rescue airplanes, codified the executive orders that comprised the majority of the embargo and added additional requirements that Cuba must meet for the embargo to end.

While the executive branch still has substantial flexibility, a real end to U.S. isolation of Cuba can only come with Congressional action. And that’s not likely to happen. Given congressional gridlock, divided government, and the fact that embargo supporters occupy key positions in each chamber, it is unlikely that the Republican-lead Congress is likely to follow the president’s lead. Moreover, an ambitious policy proposal, such as ending the decades-old embargo, late in the president’s second term and in the context of divided government is an uphill battle. Already, key House and Senate members of the GOP are denouncing the president’s move. Some may point to the shifting landscape of domestic politics on Cuba among Cuban-Americans and the general public and to evidence of a bipartisan majority in Congress for easing Cuba sanctions. But these facts are not lost on Congressional embargo supporters who will actively try to prevent such votes from occurring. Congressional scholars will detect a context ripe for negative agenda control, based on a combination of majority party leadership and a small number of highly mobilized Representatives and Senators blocking moves to end the embargo.

What’s more, there is a still a long way between a handshake and a phone call and a substantive breakthrough on key sticking points in US-Cuba relations. Issues such as human rights and confiscated U.S. properties remain priorities for the United States and the Cuban posture regarding Venezuela and North Korea, for example, suggest deep divides between the two countries. For his part, Cuban President Raul Castro statement on the breakthrough contained strong preconditions for greater progress, including a call for a full end to “el bloqueo” (the blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba. If the recent developments suggest a ray of sunshine in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, it is peeking through a sky full of grey clouds.

Moreover, given the history of Cuban responses to US ovations toward Cuba, optimists should be wary that the Cuban government might do something provocative. For example, the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down in 1996, the Havana Spring dissident roundup in 2003, and even the jailing of Alan Gross in 2009 all followed moves in the United States toward rapprochement. Will Cuba bite again? If so, Congress will likely be even more intransigent and President Obama, having extended his hand, would not be the first American leader to regret his gesture.

Brian Alexander is a doctoral candidate in political science at George Mason University.  His research is on Congress, parties, and interest groups and his dissertation looks at the utilization of conference committees.  Brian’s professional experience includes work in foreign policy non-profits, political consulting, and federal agencies. His publications include works on reform of the intelligence community and nuclear nonproliferation.