Opinion

Israel's Future Saviors Wear IDF Uniforms

Israel's youngest voters were four times more likely to go for Netanyahu. But there's hope – in the most unexpected place

An Israeli soldier prepares to cast his vote at the Erez army base in the south of Israel near the border with the Gaza strip on April 7, 2019
AFP

One of the discouraging conclusions most often drawn from last week’s election is this: as popular as Benjamin Netanyahu and the right are now, they’ll be still more popular in the future.

That's because young voters support the prime minister, his Likud party and its coalition partners more than their older sisters and brothers, and a great deal more than their parents and grandparents do.

Several recent reports - on NPR, Vice, and Jewish Currents, among others - wonder (as a headline on Unherd asked), Why are Israeli kids so Right wing?

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All these reports cite an election survey released by the Israel Democracy Institute in the week before the elections, that found that youth aged 18 to 24 preferred Prime Minister Netanyahu over Benny Gantz by a margin of 65 percent to 17 percent.

This was a data point on a graph showing that age correlates reliably with support for the Prime Minister. The younger you are, according to the survey, the more you like Netanyahu. The break-even point is at around age 50, with folks older than that preferring Gantz.

The youngest voters were almost four times as likely to like Netanyahu. When journalists interviewed soldiers at polls, what they heard confirmed the survey.

A paratrooper reported that he likes Netanyahu because "he keeps my family safe," an infantryman said Netanyahu provides "a good sense of security," and a kid with the Homefront Command said he admired the PM’s diplomacy: "The way he got Trump to get on board with Israel, Russia, China, everybody - it’s amazing."

All this is unnerving because, if two out of every three kids supports Israel’s present policies, then it is hard to see how they might ever change. A while back, Haaretz published an op-ed about the politics of young people under the headline, "The Future is Frightening." The belief that however bad things are now, our kids will make them worse is what transmutes the deep disappointment of last week’s election results into despair.

Which is why we were surprised that a close look at ballots cast by soldiers last week contradicts what we all think we know about trends in the voting patterns of young people.

Four years ago, in the 2015 elections, 61 percent of soldiers voted for right wing or religious parties (compared to the country's overall vote of 56 percent and a bit). 39 percent voted for center or left-wing parties (overall vote: 43 percent and a bit). 

Last week, soldiers voted just under 58 percent for right-wing or religious parties, and just over 41 percent for center or left parties; this while the country voted just over 55 percent to just under 44 percent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara wave as Netanyahu speaks at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv on election night. April 10, 2019
\ Ammar Awad/ REUTERS

This means that soldiers moved about three percentage points to the left in this election, compared to the last one, and they moved closer to the rest of the Israeli voting public. What actually happened was the opposite of the impression given by reporting.

This conclusion is confirmed when we look at how specific center-left parties did. These elections, the percentage of soldiers who voted for the Labor Party was greater than the percentage of the entire electorate. The gap is very small (4.65 percent vs. 4.34 percent); still, in the prior election the soldiers’ support for the Labor Party was almost an entire percentage point less than the overall population. The total growth in soldiers support for Labor, relative to the general population, is significant.

The same thing is true, only more so, at the center of the political map. Soldiers voted for Gantz's Kachol Lavan by 2.64 percent more than the general population did. In the prior election, soldiers votes for the centrist Yesh Atid party exceeded the general population by 0.59 percent.

(It is true that the percentage of soldiers who cast their ballots for Meretz was slightly smaller than the entire electorate in this election, 3.41 percent compared to 3.63 percent, and that in the last election soldiers voted for Meretz more than the overall population, 4.56 percent versus 3.93 percent. But still, soldiers seem to be voting more like the rest of us than in the past.)

It remains the case that support for Netanyahu and right-wing parties is a little stronger among soldiers than it was among the rest of us. This is hardly surprising, as army training by its nature emphasizes threats to the country’s security and prepares inductees to meet these threats. Maybe this effect fades after kids return to civilian life. Maybe not. In the end, we do not know a great deal about what political views young Israelis hold and why.

We do know, though, that the differences between these views and those of the rest of us are slighter than we have lately come to imagine.

Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Kahol Lavan political alliance, speaks before supporters at the alliance headquarters in Tel Aviv. April 10, 2019
AFP

Anshel Pfeffer has written here that Netanyahu’s popularity owes to our unprecedented prosperity, diplomatic successes, and relative safety. These achievements are so great that "the biggest surprise of the election...was that Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t win by a landslide." Young voters appreciate these things just like the rest of us.

All this raises the question: If the votes of soldiers are not, in fact, shifting further to the right with each election, then why do we think they are? We’re not sure. Maybe because seeing support for the Netanyahu as something absorbed with mother’s milk, as an almost genetic disposition, explains the left’s decade of election losses in a way that lets us off the hook.

It’s not that we didn’t persuade, it’s not that we failed to offer a vision of a future better than the one Netanyahu offered, it’s that the kids have been brainwashed, bamboozled or siren-songed.

But, it turns out, young voters are no different from anyone else. They will stop voting for Netanyahu when and if they come to believe that someone else can lead us to a better future.

Noah Efron teaches at the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. He hosts TLV1’s Promised Podcast. Twitter: @noahjefron 

Amit Ashkenazy is studying for a PhD at the Delft University of Technology and is part of the research team for TLV1’s Promised Podcast