Is Likud Still the Party of Israel's Mizrahi Voters? These Experts Say Otherwise

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MK Miri Regev confiding in then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019. Another Mizrahi Likudnik, Amir Ohana, is just behind them.
MK Miri Regev confiding in then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019. Another Mizrahi Likudnik, Amir Ohana, is just behind them.Credit: Moti Milrod

MK Miri Regev has been making waves in recent days after calling on her Likud party to jettison its “white DNA” and elect a Mizrahi politician – preferably herself – as its next party leader.

“I think the Mizrahim – the Likudniks – have long chosen white people to lead them. I think the day after Bibi Netanyahu, the Likudniks will have to make a reckoning,” the right-wing lawmaker and former transportation minister told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily recently.

Regev’s unabashed use of identity politics plays on the long-standing assumption that Likud’s dominance of Israeli politics over the last 40 years depends on its base of Mizrahi voters. But political scientists and polling say the ties between the party and Mizrahi Jews – Israelis who trace their origins to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa – are more tenuous than conventionally thought.

Worse still for Regev’s long-shot bid for the party leadership, support for Likud is waning among younger Mizrahim and among Mizrahi Jews with a higher education and a firm footing in the middle class, political scientists say.

“There are some people who are happy to accept the stereotype and say that the Mizrahi vote is irrational, tribal and emotional, and doesn’t reflect their interests,” says Prof. Gal Levy of the Open University. Together with Maoz Rosenthal and Ishak Saporta, Levy has conducted a soon-to-be published survey showing that the Mizrahi vote is far more nuanced than Regev and others believe.

The Mizrahi-Likud connection goes back to at least 1977 and the electoral “upheaval” that brought Menachem Begin’s Likud party to power after 29 years of uninterrupted left-wing rule. The link grew stronger with the bitterly fought 1981 election, where ethnic polarization played a decisive role. Political wisdom has it that the party has kept its grip on power thanks to a reliable Mizrahi vote. Indeed, although it couldn’t find enough partners to form a governing coalition, Likud was still by far the biggest party in the March election.

Then-Transportation Manager Miri Regev at a press event for the Tel Aviv Light Rail.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But for all that, there are no concrete figures on ethnic voting patterns in Israel because the Central Bureau of Statistics doesn’t break down its data in a way that makes that possible. Instead, analysts can do their own statistical analyses to estimate the ethnic vote.

In addition, patterns are extrapolated simply by examining the vote in ethnic strongholds. Thus, in poor towns on Israel’s periphery with heavy Mizrahi populations, Likud captured 39.3 percent of the March 2021 vote – 15 percentage points higher than its nationwide total – according to figures compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute.

But outlying towns comprise only part of the Mizrahi vote. The research by Levy and his colleagues reached more finely tuned conclusions based on a survey taken ahead of the April 2019 vote (the first of Israel’s four back-to-back elections).

Rather than take Mizrahim as an undifferentiated bloc, the poll broke down the population by place of birth, religiosity and education – the last two of which serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status.

What they found – in results that will appear in “The Elections in Israel, 2019-2021,” in a chapter entitled “Ethnic Demons and Class Specters: An Update on Ethnic and Class Voting in Israel” – was a wide cleavage. 

“There is a significant difference between those born here and those who were born abroad, and between those who are more educated and those who are less educated,” Levy says.

Miri Regev and the way she talks reflects a very specific perspective of Mizrahi Jews and their voting patterns and interests – she reduces them to a very particular group within the category of Mizrahim, in order to say something that conforms with her political interests.”

A demonstration attending an anti-Netanyahu protest against October. The placard says the Ashkenazi Bibi is leading a racist struggle of Mizrahim against Ashkenazism.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A voter base in decline

The core Mizrahi voter base that Regev is talking about is in decline. The population of Mizrahim born abroad is aging and shrinking because there is no new immigration to replenish it. Although large socioeconomic gaps remain between Israel’s Mizrahi and Ashkenazi populations, both in terms of education and income, those gaps have narrowed over the years. Moreover, the Mizrahi upper middle class has grown, albeit at the cost of great income stratification among Mizrahim themselves.

In short, the Mizrahi voter base Likud most relies on is in decline.

What surveys do show, however, is that Mizrahi voters hold right-of-center views more than Ashkenazi voters: A survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute in 2019 found that 72 percent of Mizrahi voters regarded themselves as right or center right, compared with 58 percent of Ashkenazi voters. These days, though, voters have other right-wing parties to choose from, not just Likud. 

Where Regev stands on firmer ground is her complaint that the Likud leadership is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. The party has only had a handful of leaders over the decades, but all of them are of European ancestry. That includes its current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who Regev nevertheless praised in her Yedioth interview as a supposed opponent of Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. 

Although Netanyahu has not even hinted that he plans to step down from the party leadership anytime soon, the most talked-about candidates to fill his shoes when that day comes are all Ashkenazi men: Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat, Gilad Erdan and Yuli Edelstein. One other candidate who is not a party member, but is rumored to be interested in the position, is former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. Regev, in other words, is the only Mizarhi candidate in the mix. 

Regev warned that if the party doesn’t make way for a Mizrahi leader, a “new” Likud would emerge. “If Likudniks keep choosing leaders with a white DNA, another Likud will arise – a truly Mizrahi Likud that will give expression to the Mizrahi voice that has been excluded over the years,” she said.

However, the Jewish People Policy Institute found that, given the choice, the overwhelming majority of voters said they don’t care what a candidate’s ethnic origin is. Among Mizrahim, 63 percent said they would give no preference to a Mizrahi candidate.

‘The politics of emotion’

Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the first from Likud, returning from a diplomatic visit to the United States in 1980.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Meir Amor, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Montreal’s Concordia University, contends that even the party’s top Mizrahi politicians aren’t really taking strong stands on issues relevant to their constituencies. Rather, he claims, they are akin to vote contractors in the employ of the party’s Ashkenazi leaders. The last Mizrahi politician to make a serious leadership bid in Likud was David Levy in the 1990s. He failed and eventually dropped out of politics.

“The [Mizrahim] who came after him are puppets like David Amsalem, Miki Zohar and Amir Ohana,'' Amor says, citing three Likud lawmakers best known as stalwart defenders of Netanyahu. ''They don’t have real power, but they do provide political benefits – it’s machine politics, not democratic politics.''

On Regev's interview, Amor says that “she speaks for a tiny minority, but not the great majority of people who are Mizrahi. Because she makes headlines, it seems like there’s real politics behind it. But it’s a policy of public relations, a politics of incitement, instead of the serious politics that need to be done.”

Both Amor and Levy say they have detected signs that Likud’s adoption of free-market economic policies and a neglect of the welfare state, especially under Netanyahu, was quietly alienating the lower-income Mizrahim who do support the party for its right-wing, nationalist platform. While appeals from the left to switch sides have failed – most notably, by the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz when he led the Labor Party – political scientists note that turnout rates in heavily Mizrahi towns have fallen to very low levels.

In last March’s election, for instance, the share of eligible voters who stayed home on Election Day was close to 52 percent in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. In all 12 of the biggest majority-Mizrahi towns, turnover was never higher than 61 percent, lower than the national average of about 67 percent (which included Arab towns where the turnout was less than 45 percent).

Taking that factor into account, Hani Zubida, who teaches political science at the Jezreel Valley College, estimates that just 17.1 percent of eligible Mizrahi voters cast a ballot for Likud in March.

“In Israel, there are large numbers of people who are becoming alienated from the system, and among them are Mizrahim who don’t vote at all,” Amor concludes. “You have to pay attention to that … there are indications that the lower classes are losing interest.”

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