Israelis Will Still Follow Ethnic and Religious Divisions in Upcoming Elections

Israel's leading right-wing parties' appeal is in their strong anti-elitist sentiment. They ride on waves of distrust of institutions and an idealization of peoplehood.

Elections will probably be held in September this year, and the latest polls indicate that Netanyahu would not be seriously challenged by anyone: Likud would gain 30 Knesset seats, up from its current 27; Lieberman would gain 13, down from 15. Labor under Shelly Yacimovich would be up to 18 seats. Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“there is a future”) would gain 11 seats, with Kadima led by Mofaz would crash down to 10 seats.

While Israelis’ confidence in the Knesset is at a historic low, they look set to perpetuate the current situation: they will reelect a right-wing government that will not move towards improving Israel’s standing in the world and in the Middle East.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Eli Yishai - Tomer Appelbaum - 23.2.2011
Tomer Appelbaum

Yacimovich and Lapid have already announced that they would join a government led by Netanyahu. Since the right-wing bloc is likely to gain 61 seats, i.e. a majority, Netanyahu will be in a comfortable position. He will probably repeat his strategy of 2009, first compose a coalition with his so-called "natural allies" (i.e. the right and the religious parties), and this would allow him to pick between Yacimovich and Lapid, while dictating terms effortlessly.

Netanyahu presents himself as the one leader able to prevent the destruction of the Jewish people and Israel – and this card seems to work for him: Israelis are not ready to replace him at the helm.

This is quite surprising, given that Netanyahu has been dealt a resounding vote of non-confidence by Israel’s security establishment. He has scored a full house: every senior defense official that has worked with him in his second tenure as Prime Minister has by now expressed profound concern about his ability to lead Israel in a time of crisis, and questioned his judgment on Iran. Former Shabaq chief Yuval Diskin has joined by former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy and Meir Dagan, the mythological former chief of the Mossad now. That’s a remarkable record – topped only by the fact that even current IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has implicitly criticized Netanyahu and Barak for fanning hysteria instead of reaching calm decisions about Iran.

Why don't Israelis listen to the men who are actually responsible for their safety – and have done their jobs quite successfully in recent years? On the face of it, they have been offered an alternative to Netanyahu, since Mofaz, a former IDF cheif and defense minister has been elected to the helm of Kadima. He has presented an eminently reasonable and pragmatic two phased peace plan that would open a political horizon for Palestinians will assuring Israel’s security needs – and yet he is unattractive to voters: current polls predict a measly 10 seats for Kadima under his leadership.

But Israeli voter behavior is not guided by pragmatic interest: it is primarily an expression of ethnic and religious identities. Israeli society is deeply divided by these identities: Shas is an explicitly Sephardic-traditionalist party, and Yisrael Beitenu Russian (but also has a strong non-Russian followership). The ultra-Orthodox vote goes to ultra-Orthodox parties; the majority of Arab votes goes to Arab parties.

One of the reasons that Mofaz seems to be a losing proposition for Kadima is that he is driving away what commentators have "the white tribe," the Ashkenazi middle class for whom Livni was attractive. This tribe is now more likely to find its home in Lapid’s party.

What, then, is the secret of the Likud, Yisrael Beitenu (that has 40 % voters that are not Russian) and the other right wing parties’ staying power? What, in other words, is their tribe? Political Scientists Dani Filc and Udi Lebel have made an interesting attempt to understand the strength of Israel’s right using a comparative approach. They have argued that the power of the right should be understood as analogous to populist right wing movements in Europe and the U.S.

The common denominator of such movements is primarily a strong anti-elitist sentiment. They ride on waves of distrust of institutions and an idealization of peoplehood. They are generally distrustful of liberal values, and indeed this seems to be the case in Israel as well: as I have argued in the past, the Netanyahu coalition is primarily driven and kept alive by anti-liberal sentiment.

Filc and Lebel’s analysis shows that Israel is not unique in any of this: voter behavior in general is an expression of identity, and populist right wing movements have gained strength in the U.S., France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Hungary. The paradox is that Netanyahu, the grandmaster of populist, anti-elitist resentment, was the first Israeli prime minister who carries academic degrees – from MIT – and whose economic views are strongly neo-liberal, and hence hurt his primary constituency’s practical interests.

But none of this diminishes his appeal for segments of Israeli society who to this day feel disenfranchised by what they see as the ruling elite. This is in itself paradoxical: the Likud has been in power for more roughly half of Israel’s history, and it become progressively less clear against what elites the populist right is protesting.

It seems that Israel will run another election campaign dominated by tribal allegiances rather than pragmatic interests – and that holds true for all tribes, including the Ashkenazi middle class. The price of Israel’s unresolved identity problems will be high: another four years in which Israel’s standing in the world will continue sinking to unprecedented levels; and another four years that are likely to drive the last nails into the coffin of the two state solution.