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The right keeps winning in Israel because Israelis are right wing

The political map in Israel hasn’t fundamentally changed since a decade ago, when left-wing voters migrated to the center and centrist voters moved right.

File photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

File photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The last week has seen feverish speculation about the possibility of early elections in Israel, primarily against the backdrop of infighting about how to handle Gaza. Defense Minister Liberman resigned and the governing coalition teetered; but on Monday the Jewish Home party announced its intention to remain, pulling Israel back from the brink of elections — for the moment. The situation is so volatile that new elections could still be called early — in March or May. At latest, they will be held one year from now, as scheduled, in November 2019.

To understand where Israel might wind up, we need to know what about the political system will not change — and where potential surprises might lie.

What we know

First, the current government has essentially maxed out its four-year term, and Netanyahu will be credited with generating relative stability in Israel’s notorious political jungle. In the past, it was rare for an Israeli government to last even close to a full term.

Second, the ideological splits in the Israeli public have been stable for roughly a dozen years. Seismic shifts during the Second Intifada led to a migration of left-wingers to the self-defined political center. They added to that camp but also replaced some centrists who migrated right, causing the percentage of Jewish right-wingers to drift upward over the decade (from around 40 percent prior to the intifada).

By around 2007, this process was complete. The political map has hardly changed since then. Currently, the portion of all Israelis who call themselves right wing stands at around 46 percent — among the Jewish population, that’s just over half. The number of self-defined centrists is roughly one-quarter, and the portion of left-wingers is stable at about one-fifth (about 14 to 15 percent of the Jewish population). Overall, most polls show a slight plurality of right-wingers, versus the center-left bloc.



Given that, the Knesset is a roughly fair representation of the citizens who vote in national elections. Of 120 seats, the right and religious coalition has 12 more seats than the center, left and Arab opposition parties combined — 66 to 54.

It makes sense, therefore, that a third relatively stable feature of Israeli politics is the party bloc breakdown since the last elections. In public polls, the current coalition parties enjoy generally the same advantage over the opposition parties as they did in the last elections. The range of that gap varies, but most often the right’s margin is just a bit above or below the 12-seat lead it holds now.

Following some changes after the 2015 elections, individual party trends are also fairly stable. During the year after the last elections, the Zionist Union (the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni) fell from 24 seats to the mid teens in surveys. The entrance of new party leader Avi Gabbay led to a small rise, but his misguided “tougher than the right” strategy quickly sent the numbers back down again. Zionist Union voters have left for Yair Lapid’s party, which Israelis view as center-left. Lapid was the shiny new penny in elections that year, and Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats in its first run, dropped to 11 in the 2015 elections. It has polled in the high teens since shortly after the 2015 elections, following the Zionist Union’s decline. The two parties pass voters back and forth.

After 2015, the ruling Likud party polled slightly below its current strength of 30 seats, until this February, when police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in two investigations — from there, his numbers rose to 30 and above. Two surveys last week showing Likud at 29 were too quick to eulogize – another survey already has him at 30, and still maintaining a commanding 12-seat lead over the next front runner.

Further, there appears to be a top margin of additional voters moving around on the right. Likud, Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon’s center-right party) and even Bennett’s far-right voters circulate slightly around one another, accounting for small shifts – sometimes even to the center. But Lapid is about as far to the left as these voters will look.

What we can’t know

That’s not to say elections are predictable. Developments during the campaign period, whenever it is, could be dramatic. A new escalation or full-out war would significantly influence voters, as would a sudden and dramatic prisoner/body swap deal. By contrast, a rollout of Trump’s “deal of the century” probably won’t make a dent either way.

But if the noose of investigations tightens any further around Netanyahu, there might be a point beyond which his base begins to abandon him in disgust. If the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu, perhaps Israelis will vote against him. Or Likud members might support someone else as their candidate.

Elections are also a time for political drama: Israel’s former chief of staff, Benny Gantz, is considering running for office. Speculation has intensified for months as media pollsters produce tantalizing results for hypothetical scenarios: if Gantz joins Zionist Union, the party will win 24 seats! If Gantz runs alone, he could come in second place!

Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 02, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 02, 2017. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I suggest treating hypothetical party polls with caution, and shiny-new-generals-cum-politicians with even more caution. Israel’s rising stars over the last dozen years have been a former television news anchor (Lapid), a nerdy communications minister with no security background (Kahlon), and before that, a group of old men (the Pensioners Party, in 2006).

A more realistic political twist comes from Orly Levi, who has polled regularly at five to six seats after defecting from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. She is seen as a serious politician of the center-right, who is focusing on social and economic issues – the very issues that have propelled two centrist parties into power over the last two election cycles.

And as in most elections, parties could break up, merge, elect new leaders, or spring out of nowhere. Former Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon has publicly stated his intention to enter politics; former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has dropped hints, headlines and denials. Until all the party lists are finalized and the votes are cast, the actual outcome is quite unpredictable.

Perhaps, therefore, the most likely interesting scenario will be growth in the centrist camp of Levy, Kulanu and Yesh Atid, as polls predict — in an outside scenario the three parties could win up to 30 seats based on the last few months of polling (5, 7 and 18, respectively). But ultimately, it’s hard to imagine a government that isn’t representative of the fact that nearly half of Israeli voters are right wing, and the sooner Israelis head to the polls, the more voters will have the near-war in Gaza on their mind.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      In other words, progressives like Ben, represent a Loony fringe of misfits, losers and a few radical degenerates.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: the mainstream press apparently is not getting your message. From the New York Times Book Review, November 18:


        …and Israel, increasingly since 1967, is a thornbush…Israel’s actions, meanwhile, especially when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians, are difficult to understand and often perceived as deeply immoral.

        Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        I would be surprised if Ben was an Israeli citizen.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      Yep. The second intifada caused Israeli Jews to lose faith in the possibility of peace with the Palestinians and undermined a pillar of the ideology of the Israeli left. On top of that there the populations that tend to vote for the Israeli Right tend to grow faster due to a higher birth rate.

      Polls tend to be just noise. I have yet to see a poll in at least the past 4 years that have not given the current coalition a majority in the next election. And that is despite the rise and fall in the fortunes of parties along the way. Parties within blocs just steal voters one from the other, as you point out.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      Sorry to be a contrarian, but why should the fate of the occupied territories and three million Palestinians be up to the right wing extremist Israeli electorate and their empty ditherings over shades of right wing extremism and what flavor of apartheid they deign to prefer? Who put them in charge? Their vote for any party on this matter is in a real sense illegal. The very idea that a vote by these people decides another people’s fate is preposterous, a charade, tyranny masquerading as something else. What is needed is one person-one vote across the land, not de facto apartheid, not like expecting those nice South African Boers to change their minds and vote nicely for a change. All of Dahlia Scheindlin’s nice political horse race commentary largely misses the point and seems to say that it is up to the occupying electorate to decide what to do, based on its self-interested calculations, to the illegally occupied. Think about it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Who put the Israelis in charge of Judea & Samaria ?
        The Jordanians ( or “p” people, South Syrians or whatever they call themselves this week) did when they launched their last war of extermination in 1967.
        Any more silly questions, Ben ?

        Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ‘FIFTY YEARS AGO, between June 5 and June 10, 1967, Israel invaded and occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. The Six-Day War, as it would later be dubbed, saw the Jewish David inflict a humiliating defeat on the Arab Goliath, personified perhaps by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt.
            “The existence of the Israeli state hung by a thread,” the country’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, claimed two days after the war was over, “but the hopes of the Arab leaders to annihilate Israel were dashed.” Genocide, went the argument, had been prevented; another Holocaust of the Jews averted.
            There is, however, a problem with this argument: It is complete fiction, a self-serving fantasy constructed after the event to justify a war of aggression and conquest. Don’t take my word for it: “The thesis according to which the danger of genocide hung over us in June 1967, and according to which Israel was fighting for her very physical survival, was nothing but a bluff which was born and bred after the war,” declared Gen. Matituahu Peled, chief of logistical command during the war and one of 12 members of Israel’s General Staff, in March 1972.
            A year earlier, Mordechai Bentov, a member of the wartime government and one of 37 people to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence, had made a similar admission. “This whole story about the threat of extermination was totally contrived, and then elaborated upon, a posteriori, to justify the annexation of new Arab territories,” he said in April 1971.
            Even Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, former terrorist and darling of the Israeli far right, conceded in a speech in August 1982 that “in June 1967 we had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.’

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Why not listen to what Arab Leaders said JUST BEFORE the 6 day war:

            May 19, 1967: “This is our chance Arabs, to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation, to blot out its entire presence in our holy land”

            May 22, 1967: “The Arab people is firmly resolved to wipe Israel off the map”

            May 25, 1967: “The Gulf of Aqaba, by the dictum of history and the protection of our soldiers, is Arab, Arab, Arab.”

            May 27, 1967: “We challenge you, Eshkol, to try all your weapons. Put them to the test; they will spell Israel’s death and annihilation.”

            May 30, 1967: “With the closing of the Gulf of Akaba, Israel is faced with two alternatives either of which will destroy it; it will either be strangled to death by the Arab military and economic boycott, or it will perish by the fire of the Arab forces encompassing it from the South from the North and from the East.”

            May 30, 1967: “The world will know that the Arabs are girded for battle as the fateful hour approaches.”

            May 30, 1967
            “All of the Arab armies now surround Israel. The UAR, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and Kuwait. … There is no difference between one Arab people and another, no difference between one Arab army and another.” – King Hussein of Jordan, after signing the pact with Egypt May 30, 1967

            May 31, 1967
            “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You are amusing, Lewis. For you ‘the Arabs’ are liars and bluffers, never to be trusted, except when you need them to be indisputable truth tellers then mirabile dictu, they are oracles of truth and integrity. And for you Israeli Jewish leaders are men of integrity and truth, except when you need them to be inexplicable liars, and then, mirabile dictu, they are all inexplicably nasty traitorous liars. It is you who asserted without justification that the Arab leaders launched a war of extermination in 1967. But that is false. It is Israel that launched an opportunistic war of annexation of territories in 1967. As outlined above. Your quotations do not rebut that.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Re:”War of Annhilation………Destruction of Israel,….. End of Israel ”
            Which part of these Arab Leaders statements don’t you understand ?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I understand them. And their context and significance. You do not. Please read Jeremy Hammond’s piece. Israel started the six-day war. And not out of defensive necessity–Nasser was not going to attack–but with territorial aims. Israel knew it. The CIA knew it. Lyndon Johnson knew it. What part of Matti Peled’s, Mordechai Bentov’s and Menachim Begin’s statements don’t you understand?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Nasser, King Hussein & Assad Senior were nice peaceful leaders in the early summer of 1967. This is typical of the Ben-ification of Israel’s history.
            Just lie long enough and hopefully nobody will notice.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Uzi Narkiss and Motta Gur were not “nice peaceful leaders” in the summer of ’67 either. The CIA had determined that Egypt’s troops had taken up defensive positions in the Sinai. Israel’s own intelligence also assessed that Israel was not under threat of attack from Egypt. In 1982, Menachem Begin admitted that “In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967 was not preemptive and it was not defensive. It was an attack that constituted illegal aggression under international law. To paint Israel as the innocent victim is a lie.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben-ification of Israel’s history proceeds.
            All this from an idiotic person that does NIOT live there

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Pure ad hominem (and you don’t know where I live and for what part of the year where). What’s Lewisification? The peddling of a fake Disneyland version of Israeli history where Jews were never aggressors, always plucky, heroic victims defending themselves at the last minute against implacable Arab hordes? With the lead part played by blue-eyed Paul Newman? Or, if we take you at face value, is it just the frankly Judeofascist blut und boden version of Israeli history? The settler in this interesting article actually frankly admitted she is a fascist:

            This Filmmaker Moved to a Settlement to Make a Movie: ‘I Felt Bad About Being a Jew There’

            “Another woman says she joined the religious-nationalist hilltop youth when she was a teenager, not because of ideology but for the romantic allure of sleeping in tents and taking part in demonstrations. When she realized what this all looked like from a Palestinian point of view, she immediately gave it up. Her friend, who grew up in Hebron, readily admits that she feels no empathy for the Palestinians and, without so much as blinking, says yes, she is a fascist.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben feels the Land of Israel is nothing more than a cartoonish Disneyland-type Theme Park.
            I guess you feel that way, because you DO NOT ACTUALLY LIVE HERE.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Lewis: We are not talking about the landscape of Israel-Palestine; we are talking about the landscape of your mind, and thank god I don’t live *there.* Most Austrians, thank god, don’t live inside the pleasant kitsch landscape of “The Sound of Music” when they assess their own culpability in and actual behavior during the Anschluss.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Peter Cohen

      Israeli’s are not ‘right wing’.They are zionists who share an ideology. The ideology makes it possible to ethically cleanse a territory for the Jews. All ethnic nationalisms share this ethnic ‘we have a right’ idea, that people with the same ‘blood’ have right to a ‘soil’. This idea was very widespread in the 19th century and gave rise to all sorts of Blut und Boden movements, usually with sordid outcomes.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron Landis

      Dahlia, can you cite please the source of the statistics, particular that about 46% of Israelis self-identifying as right wing? Much of your (always brilliant and articulate) analysis on this could be read to indicate quite the opposite of your key finding: A charismatic figure like Yair Lapid (once), or Benny Gantz (now) has the power to sway votes. It may very well be true NOT that “Israelis are right wing” but that “right wing Israeli politicians have better stage presence.”

      Say what you will about Bibi (I’ve said plenty)…he’s an outstanding orator and genius politician. No other figure comes close to matching his charisma. And of those who show and place, none are on the left, to be sure.

      People elect personalities, and just as votes migrated to the right in recent years, they can migrate back to the center if the right personality emerges.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Jim ron

      Good piece, Dahlia. V useful.

      Reply to Comment
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