Leo Atelman

Tell Me How Rich You Are, I’ll Tell You if You’ll Vote Netanyahu

An analysis of the last election results appears to show Israeli politics as a class struggle between warring tribes



You could summarize Israel’s last two elections with the saying, “Tell me where you live, and I’ll tell you who you’ll vote for.” A cross-check of the September election results with the socio-economic ranking of Israeli communities reveals a significant correlation between the bank account and the ballot box.

Broadly speaking, the rich vote Kahol Lavan, the middle class supports Likud and the poor are divided between the Joint List and the Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Four tribes, exactly as President Reuven Rivlin described in his defining speech on the divides in Israeli society. The rich and the Arabs are on the left, the Haredim and the middle class are on the right, and the fight between blocs plays out over the upper middle class.

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The election doesn’t revolve around the prime minister’s corruption cases, the annexation of the Jordan Valley or even on religious exclusion or secularization. All these fiercely debated topics are merely cover for a class struggle between rival tribes. Political positions derive first and foremost from economic class and the voters’ aspirations, and not from the character, charisma and experience of the candidates.

This is not very different from the United States, or the United Kingdom; but Israel’s proportional system means minority votes also win representation. In America and Britain, the winner takes all in their geographically divided constituencies. The losing votes are wasted, and polarization is amplified.

To understand Israel's political story, just look at the index issued by the country's Central Bureau of Statistics, which divides Israel’s 1,183 communities into 10 distinct groups, from poorest to richest. Using data from government ministries and local authorities, it refines its ranking using 14 separate parameters, looking at assets and consumption patterns. We know the upper classes have advanced degrees, big, expensive cars and regularly go through Ben Gurion International Airport, while the lower classes are less educated, go by bus and rarely take a plane.

Tomer Appelbaum

The most recent  index, published in two parts in November 2018 and August 2019, was based on statistics from 2015. The coming year will see the publication of a more up-to-date index based on 2017 statistics. The socio-economic index was prepared by a professional team from the statistics bureau, led by Luisa Burke, Natalia Tsibel, Yosif Badran. An oversight committee was headed by Momi Dahan, a Hebrew University professor, and included representatives from academic institutions, government ministries, and city municipalities.

This article was also informed by a report from the Adva Center policy analysis institute, which was published after the September election and analyzed results from a socio-economic perspective.    

The rich see Gantz as their leader

Kahol Lavan was the big winner in the top 30 percent of communities, comprised of Tel Aviv and wealthy communities mostly in Israel’s central metropolitan area. These are instantly recognizable in Israel, like Savyon or Kfar Shmaryahu, a seaside community a short drive north of Tel Aviv strewn with imposing designer villas. Benny Gantz’s party took all of the top 10 percent, 95 of 97 communities in the second-highest decile, and 242 of 270 communities in the third-highest decile in the last election. Israelis of means see Benny Gantz as their representative and leader. Voting for the left-wing party Meretz is positively correlated with voting for Kahol Lavan.

Likud did not win any community in the top two deciles, and placed first in just 18 communities in the eighth decile (i.e. between the top 30 percent and the top 20 percent), most of them in the so-called "periphery," and some wealthier West Bank settlements, including in the Jordan Valley.

The upper-middle-class, comprising the seventh decile, is the battleground for the two parties with a shot at the leadership. Like Wisconsin or Florida, bellwether states for the U.S. presidential elections, secondary cities, like Haifa, Rishon Letzion, and Holon, as well as hundreds of moshavim, kibbutzim and settlements, and even the well-to-do Catholic Arab community of Mi’ilya, will be crucial. It’s a closely-fought contest: Likud took 32.5 percent of the vote and Kahol Lavon 31.3 percent in the September election.

Meanwhile, the sixth and fifth deciles are Netanyahu’s “base,” smaller urban centers in the periphery, like Eilat, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Netanya. Together with dozens of settlements and religious kibbutzim and communities where the right-wing alliance and Likud ally Yamina leads, these communities keep him in power.

Support for Kahol Lavan could be found in the less well-off kibbutzim in these areas, and the trend goes on further down the socio-economic ladder: Likud leads in urban areas, Yamina in religious communities and settlements, and Kahol Lavan in kibbutzim, as well as large Druze communities.

The Joint List of Arab-majority parties scores high in the poorest deciles, led by Arab-majority cities like Nazareth and Sakhnin. Likud grabs most of the vote in urban areas, except those that are religious. Ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas score high in Jerusalem, the largest and poorest of Israeli cities, and in other Haredi communities.

All for the status quo

These clearly divided results partly explain the parties’ platforms, and how limited their field of play is in attracting new votes. Kahol Lavan wants to keep things as they are, to maintain an economic system that favors the higher echelons, and to strengthen elitist institutions – the IDF general staff, the intelligence community, the legal system and the treasury’s budget department. The “haves” have something to lose, and they are motivated mainly out of fear of losing control and assets.

Emil Salman

Gantz represents the status quo, and doesn’t suggest any social or economic changes. This could be why he is so popular in polls and at the ballot box compared to his leftist predecessors in the past two decades. Their campaign against growing religious influence is also an economic struggle against the religious and ultra-Orthodox seeking to transfer money from secular suburban Israelis to settlements and yeshivas. He simply promises his supporters that the sun will shine tomorrow, in exactly in the same place.

On paper, Likud represents social mobility: Its voters have a shot at the top of the income table – but may also fall. They are motivated by hope and fear, and Netanyahu knows better than anyone how to play on both. He promises Likudniks to “change the elites” and push them to the top, which is why he fights against the “deep state,” the prosecutors and the media, who represent the existing order, and supports Elor Azaria’s struggle against his commanders.

Netanyahu also appeals to his voters in lower economic deciles by promising them superiority, at least symbolically, over Arabs in a similar economic situation, using the Nation-State Law and other manifestations of racism. In recent years, Netanyahu has mainly promoted politicians representing the “Likud base” in the periphery, who stand in stark contrast with Kahol Lavan and its leaders.

When you look at the vote in this way, it’s easy to understand why Likud voters aren’t bothered by the indictments against Netanyahu, and continue to support him, even when the attorney general says he accepts bribes, cheats and breaches the public’s trust. Netanyahu understands. He represents the hopes and fears of his voters, and they return the love on Election Day.

Likud propagandists like to speak of the great opportunities their party has created over the years. They like to say Likud made higher education more accessible by building colleges – even when these were actually opened when late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was in office. But statistics show that, despite these great efforts, Likud-voting communities have stagnated, and remain a part of the middle class. Eleven years of continuous Netanyahu rule hasn’t at all changed the social status of his voters. They are stuck in the fifth and sixth income deciles, while those in higher categories have kept their relative advantage, and perhaps even widened the economic gaps.

Despite their promises, one might wonder whether Likud really has any interest in change, and instead fears the loss of voters to conservative Kahol Lavan, or the loss of Likud’s energizing radical ideology.

No movement across the tribes

In the lower income brackets, the picture is reversed. Haredim and Arabs only have something to gain. Haredi parties have understood this for a long time, and focus on moving government resources from taxes to their voters’ pockets, despite their comparatively small contribution to the national wealth. The Joint List has adopted a similar strategy in the last election, when it promised to support Gantz and even join his coalition in exchange for economic and social benefits, in law enforcement, housing and education.

The lion’s share of Avigdor Lieberman’s support base is right in the middle of the socioeconomic ladder, in deciles four through seven. But in September, his Yisrael Beiteinu party, which has emerged as a pivotal force, made some inroads into Kahol Lavan turf thanks to the struggle against the “growing religious influence” on Israeli society. This explains why Gantz and his peers don’t link up with the left, with the Joint List, or adopt any outright left-wing positions. They worry that their more nationalist voters will abandon them for Yisrael Beiteinu. Voter defection to a party within the same "natural bloc," such as Labor-Gesher-Meretz, whose support is assured in any coalition talks, would less concerning.

Tribal divisions will determine the results of the March election exactly as they did in September. In recent months, there have been no significant economic or social shifts, no significant changes on the security or diplomatic fronts. All opinion polls suggest a movement toward the larger factions, but nothing that would push voters away from their home parties. Zip codes will likely influence the vote this time as well, more than any of the candidates’ speeches, or the spin doctors’ maneuvers. The question, in this election like the ones before, will be how many citizens will actually leave the comfort of their home to vote for their tribe’s party.

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