From Liberals in Tel Aviv to Radical Settlers: How Israelis Voted in the Election

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A campaign poster for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party in Bnei Brak, September 17, 2019.
A campaign poster for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party in Bnei Brak, September 17, 2019.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

In Israel, certain places have traditionally been strongholds of the right (Jerusalem, West Bank settlements) while others have long been affiliated with the left (Tel Aviv, kibbutzim). With almost all the ballots counted, it’s time to take a deep dive into Tuesday’s election to see if all the well-known truisms about voting patterns still apply and what, if anything, has changed in the five short months since Israelis last went to the polls.

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Based on figures published by the Central Elections Committee showing both the breakdown of votes by parties and turnout rates in each locality (at press time, 97 percent of the vote had been counted), here are six key takeaways:

1. Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem

Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz makes surprise visit to the beaches of Tel Aviv, exhorting sunbathers to go vote on Election Day, September 17, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Tel Aviv did remain blue and Jerusalem did remain red. No surprises there. But some interesting shifts took place within the political blocs.

Kahol Lavan, the centrist party headed by Benny Gantz, was the biggest vote winner in Tel Aviv this week, just as it was in April. But in the latest round, the party lost some of its strength in Israel’s secular capital to the Democratic Union, the new alliance that evolved out of left-wing Meretz and focused its campaign on fighting religious coercion.

Kahol Lavan won 42 percent of the vote in Tel Aviv — down from 46 percent in April. The Democratic Union, meanwhile won 14 percent of the vote, up from 9 percent in the previous round when it was still known as Meretz.

Voters (and a curious canine) waiting in line to vote at a polling station in Ramat Aviv on Election Day, September 17, 2019.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

In Jerusalem, Likud was replaced by an ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, as the capital’s most popular party. In April, Likud picked up 25 percent of the vote there with UTJ trailing right behind it with 23 percent; those numbers flipped in the latest round of voting.

Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, is also its most diverse politically. Kahol Lavan won about a third of the vote in the mixed Jewish-Arab city, just as it did in the last round, with Likud again in second place. The party that picked up considerable strength on Tuesday was Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which won 12 percent of the vote in the northern city (compared with 7 percent in April). Yisrael Beiteinu has traditionally targeted the Russian-speaking community, and Haifa is home to many Russian-speaking Israelis.

2. Voting in hordes 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of Election Day pleading with his supporters to get out and vote, warning them that the “Arabs and left-wingers” were turning out in droves. Was it just a scare tactic? Well, turnout among Arab citizens was indeed high, going up from 49 percent in April (an all-time low) to nearly 60 percent on Tuesday.

Israeli Arabs vote in Kfar Manda, an Arab town in Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

However, a look at turnout rates in key left-wing strongholds reveals that Netanyahu’s warnings about the left were mostly groundless. In Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim and Hod Hasharon — some of Israel’s most famous “blue” cities, all in the Greater Tel Aviv region — voter turnout this week was lower than it was in April.

3. Right to right 

In most of the traditional right-wing strongholds, Likud maintained its strength in the most recent election — even winning larger shares of the vote in some cases. It remained as popular as ever in the desert city of Dimona, claiming 55 percent of the vote — a tally it matched in the northern town of Beit She’an.

Prime Minister Benjamin and his wife Sarah casts their votes at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019.Credit: Heidi Levine, Sipa, Pool via AP

Some notable exceptions were the southern port city of Ashdod, where Netanyahu’s party slipped from 34 percent in April to 31 percent this week. About 18 months ago, Ashdod’s nonreligious residents — a disproportionately large share of them Russian-speakers — took to the streets to protest a new law that would close down city shops on Shabbat. It is no surprise, then, that Lieberman’s party, which ran on a platform of fighting religious coercion, did well in Ashdod: It won 18 percent of the vote in the latest round compared with 12 percent in April.

Other cities with large Russian-speaking communities where Likud lost votes to Yisrael Beiteinu were Bat Yam and Netanya. Netanyahu’s party also lost a bit of strength in Sderot, where the Labor Party gained ground. Its share of the vote in the city adjacent to the Gaza Strip increased from 3 percent in April to 8 percent Tuesday. Perhaps not coincidentally, the party’s new leader, Amir Peretz, is a resident and former mayor of Sderot.

A Yisrael Beiteinu supporter hanging a poster of party leader Avigdor Lieberman outside the polling station in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, September 17, 2019.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP

4. The Arab left 

In April, Arab voters helped push left-wing Meretz over the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, saving it from total collapse. A key Meretz stronghold in the last election was Beit Jann. This Druze village in northern Israel is famous for having one of the country’s top-performing high schools and the former principal of that establishment, Ali Salalha, was No. 5 on the Meretz slate in April when the party won nearly two-thirds of the local vote — its best showing anywhere. But when he was moved down to an unrealistic spot on the Democratic Union list, Salalha quit the party and voters in Beit Jann took their revenge at the ballot box on Tuesday: The Democratic Union barely captured 3 percent of the vote there. It was perhaps the only place in Israel where Labor was the biggest winner, capturing 41 percent of the vote.

A member of the Israeli Druze community casts her ballot during Israel's parliamentary elections on September 17, 2019, in Daliyat al-karmel in northern Israel.Credit: AFP

5. Labor of love

From the time the state was founded, the nonreligious kibbutzim (which account for the overwhelming majority) have been a key Labor Party stronghold. In April, however, Kahol Lavan was the biggest party on almost every one of Israel’s roughly 250 communal settlements (in many cases capturing more than half the votes). Two kibbutzim remained loyal to Labor in the last election: Be’eri on the Gaza border, and Hulata in the Hula Valley.

Leader of the Labor Party Amir Peretz poses with a vendor while on an election campaign tour at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on September 12, 2019. Credit: AFP

On Tuesday, though, Kahol Lavan outperformed Labor on both of these kibbutzim. There were only three kibbutzim where Kahol Lavan was not the most popular, and in each case it was the Democratic Union taking that title.

6. Kahanists at home

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party did not gain enough votes to get into the Knesset. With almost all of the votes counted, the extremist party founded by followers of the late Meir Kahane — the racist rabbi whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset more than 30 years ago — only picked up 1.88 percent of the total vote (well below the electoral threshold).

Otzma Yehudit's Baruch Marzel at a press conference after he and Bentzi Gopstein were banned from running, August 26, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

On some of the more extreme settlements, however, the party — which ran as part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties in April — performed quite well. In Hebron, for example, it picked up 37 percent of the vote, coming in second behind Yemina, the right-wing religious party that won 46 percent of the vote there.

Its best showing came in the radical settlement of Yitzhar, where it won 58 percent of the vote. It also won 35 percent in Bat Ayin, 30 percent in Shavei Shomron and 28 percent in Kfar Tapuah.

The one place inside the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border) where the Kahanist party was a hit was Kfar Chabad. The Kahanist party won 22 percent of the vote in this Lubavitcher community, located in central Israel, where it was the second most popular party behind United Torah Judaism. In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Otzma Yehudit picked up almost 3.5 percent of the vote — just behind Labor and ahead of Yisrael Beiteinu.

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