Can the Center-left Cheat Fate and Snatch Middle Class Voters From Netanyahu's Hands?

Likud’s electoral strength is with middle income groups. Gantz's new party is taking its votes from Labor, which is supported by Israel's highest income earners

Gantz, Lapid and Gabbay.
Olivier Fitouss, Dan Balilty,AP

The logic of the campaign now underway calling for the leaders of the center-left parties to unite is self-evident. The slogan “Without unity our voice is lost” wants to prevent the votes of more than a million Israelis from being dispersed among a handful of small and medium-sized parties, which would almost certainly ensure that Benjamin Netanyahu leads the next government.

The mathematics of the campaign’s leaders is one plus one equals three – because of the morale boost unity would provide and bring out voters who would otherwise stay at home in despair.

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Illustration: Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz juggles the heads of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,Labor leader Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid.
Amos Biderman

The people behind the campaign are Noa Eliasaf-Shoham, a social entrepreneur and a founder of the Reut Institute; retired Brig. Gen. Giora Anver; advertising man Ilan Shiloach; Yonatan Ben-Artzi, Yitzak Rabin’s grandson; and retired Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky.

Their prime targets are Benny Gantz and his Hosen L’Yisrael; Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid; and Labor’s Avi Gabbay. But the campaign is also directed a smaller players – Tzipi Livin, Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.

The campaign’s leaders do not expect all the candidates to unite, but they are hoping to at least coax Gantz and Lapid into each other’s arms. The campaigners have a poll (conducted for the Saloona website, which is owned by Shiloah’s wife, Shira Margalit) that shows that if Ashkenazi were to join them, the combination could form the next government.

In doing so the campaigners want to break the hard and fast rule that says the April 9 elections are fated to produce a government led by Netanyahu, a man for whom they have deep reservations. But only unity can do it.

Billboard calling on Israeli centrist leaders to unite ahead of election, Tel Aviv, January 18, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Beside their political affiliations, the other thing the campaign organizers have in common, along with the politicians and voters they are appealing to, is that they all belong to the upper-income stratum of Israeli society.

Naturally the people who are financing the campaign are the elite of the elite. They include Doris and Mordy Arkin, who sold the pharmaceuticals company Agis to America’s Perrigo; Sara and Michael Sela, a former Weizmann Institute of Technology president and a discoverer of the best-selling multiple sclerosis treatment Copaxone; Noam and Yoav Shoham, a high-tech entrepreneur and Stanford University computer science professor, respectively.

Most of Israel’s top 20% are not represented in the current government, and there’s a good chance they won’t be in his next one, if Netanyahu gets to form it. He has always preferred a coalition of right, soft right and ultra-Orthodox parties. He can better withstand the pressures coming from the right than from the left and prefers partners who have no other home than with him.

Israeli politics is about identity politics, which is no surprise given the heterogeneous nature of Israeli society, There are Haredi-Ashkenazi parties, Haredi-Mizrahi parties, parties that represent Russian immigrants, the national religious, Arabs and so on.

For the center left, the identify is perhaps less clear, but many see it for what it is – the “white tribe“ of Ashkenazi Jews whose families have been in the country a long time, are secular and liberal and enjoy above-average incomes.

If you ignore the social identify of voters and look at them based entirely by which income stratum they belong to, you emerge with a very interesting picture of the next elections.

How you earn is how you vote

A decade ago, Prof. Momi Dahan of Hebrew University did just that in research that examined the results of several elections in Israel by the socioeconomic characteristics of voters. He updated the study to include the 2015 election.

What he found is that voters supporting to Zionist Union (now separated again as the Labor Party and Hatnuah after their break up last month), Yesh Atid and Meretz were at the upper-income echelons. Likud, Kulanu and Habayit Hayehudi voters were strongly middle class. Haredi partiers and the Joint List, which represents Arab voters, not surprisingly were at the bottom of the income ladder.

For example, in 2015, Zionist Union won the votes of 45% of Israelis in the top-10% income bracket, compared with 17% who voted Likud and 17% for Yesh Atid. In the next decile down, Zionist Union got 39% of the votes, versus 18% for the Likud and 16% for Yesh Atid.

Likud’s electoral strength was with the middle income groups. In the seventh decile, it captured 26% of the votes, in the sixth 29% and in the fifth 32%. By comparison, Zionist Union’s support fell to 24%, 21% and 11%, respectively.

Support for the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism and the Joint List at the top decile was close to nil. For the Joint List, its electoral support in the top three deciles was nil.

A major new force in the current elections, Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael, hasn’t spelled out its political program yet. But it is taking its votes from Labor, which means its electoral base is Israel’s highest income earners.

Alas, what the 2015 Knesset election taught was that a strong standing in Israel’s top two income deciles doesn’t bring victory. The votes of those in the bottom decile are equal to those at the top and in order to win enough votes to form a government, a party has to win support up and down the income ladder.

That’s what the Likud does. In the top decile, its support was equal to Yesh Atid’s, but it won 30 Knesset seats in 2015 to Yesh Atid’s 11.

The income data provide a clear picture of the chances of a united party of the center-left capturing a large number of mandates. To succeed, it is going to have to win votes from middle income groups – the top alone won’t suffice.

The organizers of the “Without unity our voice is lost” campaign reason that many votes of the center-left will be lost if the tiny parties fail to win enough support to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset. Low voter turnout, especially among the young, who waiver between centrist parties and the right, make the situation worse.

Voter turnout

Other research by Dahan (together with Avishai Afriat) looked into the decline in voter turnout in the decade to 2006 and its possible correlation with a decline in socioeconomic status. In 1996, 81.2% of eligible voters went to the polls, a figure that fell to 60.2%

But an updated study found that the decline in turnout reversed itself in the last two elections in Israel and rose to 67.9% in the last election.

Dahan and Afriat found that turnout was lower in less well-off communities, raising the question of whether that would encourage governments to adopt policies that would hurt the poorest. In fact, over the last decade inequality has started to decline in Israel due to policies like a higher minimum wage, introduction of a negative income tax and an increase in the labor force participation rate of the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs.

What should interest the center-left bloc is the relatively high voter turnout among the highest income groups. Dahan and Afriat found that in communities which the Central Bureau of Statistics ranks as highest for socioeconomic indicators, turnout was 74.7% in the 2015 election. In the lowest it was 64%.

From that you could assume that the wasted votes are mainly from the poorest locales, except that the rule applies mainly to Arab voters, who support the Joint List. In any case, turnout for Haredim, who are in the lowest income brackets, is very high.

If a united party of Gantz, Barak, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi want to attract the votes of those below the top 20%, they could try to tap the Arab vote. The problem is it’s hard to imagine Arab voters flocking to a party comprising four ex-chiefs of staff campaigning on their wartime successes.

What’s left is Jewish votes in the middle deciles, for which they will have to compete with the Likud and its satellite parties.

A new party stands a better chance of succeeding than a veteran one. The proof of that is Labor, which chose Gabbay as its leader in the hopes that he could lure away Likud voters. The fact that he hasn’t happened has led many Labor voters to migrate to Hosen L’Yisrael.

Gantz appears to understand he needs to broaden his base out of the top 20% and has been working to convince Orly Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher Party and even Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, which is now allied with the Likud, to join him. Gantz ‘s rumored efforts to enlist Avi Nissenkorn, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, is being conducted with the same idea in mind. It’s far from assured he will succeed.