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The ethnic vote and the 'white coalition': 7 takeaways from Israel's elections

Netanyahu is most likely to form his next government around the religious and the secular middle class, represented by election victors Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The coalition will concentrate on domestic reform and will only strengthen the status quo on the Palestinian issue. Also: Did Israelis really move left? Seven takeaways from the elections.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman thank their supporters at the Likud-Israel Beitenu headquarter, January 23 2013 (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

1. The future government
At the time of writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s base of Orthodox and right-wing parties has 60 Knesset seats – the same as the potential opposition. Estimates are that the Jewish Home party will finish with another seat at the expense of the United Arab List once the soldiers’ votes are counted, pushing the Right over the Knesset’s halfway mark. This is not a major change, since it’s pretty clear that Netanyahu will form the next government with Yair Lapid – the biggest winner of the night – and probably Kadima. The three parties have 52 seats combined and with Naftali Bennet’s Jewish home party, they could reach 63-64 seats, which means a stable government. Other parties that might join the government, like Shas or Tzipi Livni, will do so on the terms of the senior coalition partners.

This combination makes sense because Lapid, Bennet and Netanyahu share the same ideology on social and economic issues, and have the same indifference to the Palestinian issue (with some nuances). Bennett will have the support of Likud hawks, while Lapid will take over the role of handling the Right’s contacts with the world, as Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres did for the previous Netanyahu government. Lapid spoke at the last AIPAC conference and enjoys nice relations with some of Israel’s allies in Washington, while for them his presence in the government will serve as proof that Netanyahu has indeed “moderated.”

The next government will try to reach a new consensus on issues of military draft reform and perhaps the heavy tax burden on the middle class – these are the issues that Lapid is most identified with and Netanyahu and Bennett will only be too happy to respond.

Naftali Bennett, head of Jewish Home party, greeting supporters at the end of election day, January 23 2013

2. The hard-Right and the settlers
So much attention was given before the elections to the rise of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and the increased representation of the settlers in the next Knesset that even his supporters were disappointed with the 11 seats they got (as I said, they are likely to end up with 12). But make no mistake, this was a relatively good night for the settlers. The next Knesset will have a record number of around 40 religious Jewish Knesset members (including 19 in the Orthodox parties) – many of them settlers or supporters of the settler movement. Since they will be part of the government, and since they tend to operate as one coherent bloc, they are likely to have major effect on issues involving appointments of government officials and on Israeli policies in the West Bank (I have written more about the rise of the settlers to the position of the new elite here). Unless Netanyahu leaves Bennett outside the government – an unlikely prospect – he won’t be able to pursue a diplomatic solution even if he wanted to, and everything he has ever done suggests that is the last thing he wants.

On the Palestinian issue, the next Knesset will not be very different from the previous one. Lapid himself declared before the elections that he opposes a territorial compromise on Jerusalem. He also refuses to form any sort of ad-hoc union with the Left or the Arab parties, which is necessary for any political path that could end the occupation. If you thought Netanyahu perferred confrontational speeches and a lot of hot air to bold action, wait until you see Lapid. After all, the guy is a talk-show host.

3. The ethnic vote
A Netanyahu-Bennett-Lapid coalition will be the most “white” Israel has ever had, for lack of a better word. The almost total absence of Sephardi Jews in those parties is quite shocking, and deserves deeper examination.

In fact, these were the most “ethnic” elections I remember, and it seems that each ethnic group or sub-group had its own party, with the clearest division being between Arabs and Jews, of course, but also within those groups. With the risk of tremendous generalization, I would say that poor Sephardi Jews voted Shas and those with higher income Likud; Ashkenzi national-religious went with Bennett; Secular Ashkenazi voted for Meretz, Livni and Lapid and so on.

Except maybe for Labor and Likud – the old forces which still have some coalitions between them – it seems that the entire system is determined by the interaction of two variables: ethnicity and economic status. The party lists reflect that fact, despite the occasional variations, which could be explained by the need to project a more inclusive image. Lapid’s novelty and the deeper reasons for his success is the understanding that the Ashkenazi upper-middle class now views itself as another sector that needs to compete for more benefits, rather than as the elite in charge of the entire society.

The effect of ethnicity and its interaction with class, especially among Jews, is the most denied element in Israeli popular discourse, because it runs contrary to the image or myth of the Zionist melting pot, and it certainly contradicts the image of a state which treats all citizens – Jews and non-Jews – equally, although that was always more of a comfortable self-perception than something you could seriously defend. Again, these issues deserve closer examination, which I will try to get to sometime soon.

Supporters of Shas at the women section during the party’s event on election night, January 22 2013 (photo: Tali Mayer)

4. Iran
Returning to politics: if you want to know how weak Netanyahu got, just remember that out of the Likud’s 31 MKs, 11 belong to Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu list, which at least according to Lieberman is still a separate party. If the ambitious Lieberman decides one day to resume his independence – maybe after his trial – Netanyahu will be left with an average Knesset faction, and at least half of his MKs will be hawks and settlers who could desert at any moment. The most important outcome of Netanyahu’s weakness is  a further-reduced chance of an Israeli attack on Iran – and looming cuts in the security budget will work in that direction too.

5. Shift to the left?
Since the elections were called we posted every public poll on our Knesset Poll Tracker page and not a single one predicted Netanyahu’s bloc dropping to 60 Knesset members (one or two polls gave him 61, but not in the weeks leading up to the elections). The previous Knesset had the Right-Orthodox with 65 seats, and the poll average we posted gave the Right 66 seats.

The actual results are a swing of 3-6 seats to the left within the Jewish public, starting from the Likud (plus some changes within the Right). The Likud, Lieberman and the national religious had 49 seats in the previous Knesset – they now have 42-43; the Center (Kadima + Labor) had 41, and the new Center (Lapid + Kadima + Livni + Labor) has 42; the Left (Meretz) had 3 and now has 6, and right now the non-Zionist parties have an additional seat, although they are likely to lose it.

I would speculate that the gradual migration of Jewish voters to the Right that has taken place since 1996 seems to have stopped, and might have even ended. Yet we are still talking small numbers and a long-term process, so don’t expect new policies immediately. I still stand by my view that the Israeli public and the Israeli political system cannot, under the current circumstances, come up with a solution that would end the occupation, not to mention solve the deeper fundamental issues of the conflict.

6. No shared politics for Arabs and Jews
The shift to the left didn’t result in a Jewish readiness to support shared platforms with Palestinians. Personally, this is the most heartbreaking element of politics here (in my polling station only seven votes were cast for Arab-Jewish parties, two of them from my own house. The legalization party, for example, got six votes).

The three Palestinian parties reflect three distinct approaches to politics – religious, liberal and socialist – but Jews vote for their own religious, liberal and socialist parties (so do Palestinians, but it’s harder to blame them – Jewish institutions were always unwelcoming for them) and Jewish politicians, even on the Left, hardly try to bridge that gap.

Extreme-right activist Itamar Ben-Gvir at the Otzme LeYisrael party office following election day, 23 January 2013 (photo: Tali Mayer)

7. A positive note
Part of the “success” of the Center-Left was pure luck. While two small opposition factions – Kadima and Balad – passed the Knesset threshold (the latter actually gaining some 11,000 votes since 2009), the extreme-right Otzma LeYisrael party, headed by Michael Ben-Ari and Aryeh Eldad will probably be left out of the Knesset, “burning” two seats that would have gone to the Right.

This is perhaps the happiest turn of event in these elections. There are racists and there are racists, and Otzma was the worst kind. In the tradition of the JDL and Kahane groups – not surprising, considering the fact that most Kahane people ended up in Otzma after their party was outlawed – Otzma’s members used to go to the most sensitive areas of conflict and try to fan the flames. They marched in Palestinian towns chanting racist slogans, and they spent days in south Tel Aviv demonizing and inciting against asylum seekers. MK Ben-Ari played a central role in the incitement that led to the attacks on asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood last spring. It won him a lot of media attention and also support – or so it seemed.

Before the polls opened, Ben Ari posted on his Facebook page a video showing him and other known Hebron settlers visiting Rabbi Kahane’s grave; it didn’t help. While the Arab members of Knesset Ben Ari hated entered the parliament with a comfortable margin, Kahane’s heirs were left out.

Yair Lapid: The rise of the tofu man
Will surprising results stop a status-quo Netanyahu-led government?


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    1. Cort Greene

      So have searched many places and I understand there were many smaller parties but did the Da am Workers Party increased their vote total from last time?

      I would have voted for them if I lived in the area.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Yes, Da’am increased their vote total by 25% though they have another 70,000 votes to go before they are represented in the Knesset. If they keep up this rate of growth they should make it into the Knesset at some point in the year 2050 or so.

        Reply to Comment
        • Cort Greene

          Maybe not 2050, could be a lot sooner when the economy goes farther south and the more cutbacks in social services coming because of the world economic crisis, possible US cuts and if the 4 million Palestinians who could not vote because being annexed and kept stateless.

          With all the Da am Workers Party was up against by big money and nationalism from all sides.

          Y’all could be facing another election soon anyway and things change and they are on the correct track.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Maybe not 2050, could be a lot sooner when the economy goes farther south and the more cutbacks in social services coming because of the world economic crisis

            And what exactly Daam would be able to do about it? Create jobs? Give money to the poor? Nonsense.

            >possible US cuts

            Which would be only beneficiary to Israeli economy

            >and if the 4 million Palestinians

            No, there is no less than 40 million Palestinians in WB.

            >who could not vote because being annexed and kept stateless.

            They are stateless by their own will expressed by their leaders.

            >With all the Da’am Workers Party was up against by big money and nationalism from all sides.

            Useless commies will remain useless commies disregarding their nationality or ethnicity.

            Reply to Comment
      • They ended with around 4,000 votes – a slight increase but still far-far off the threashold.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      “white”…for lack of a better word.

      I oppose importation of too many American products into Israeli culture, and “white” is one of those products better left in America. I’ll stick with Made in Israel products: Ashkenazi, Arab, Russian, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, etc.

      I don’t think you intend to create an ethnic category called “white,” but that’s exactly what you and other leftists will do if you keep this up. Do you really want to create a new category that includes Ashkenazi, “Russian” goy, and some Sephardim, and excludes everyone else? Especially considering how many Israelis are mixtures of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi? The category “white” does not significantly exist today. (Yeah, you hear the word occasionally.) I’d think twice before creating it.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Guy

      Under what definition is it sensible to count votes to Lapid as centerist? As you yourself wrote, he concurs with Netanyahu on every topic (subject to extremely minute details).
      Moreover, his voters chose him EXACTLY because he concurs with Netanyahu.
      Lapid is equivalent to the old Likud. Meridor, Rivlin and even the late Ron Nachman would feel right at home.
      Today’s Likud has more extreme right members than the old “tchia”, and Bennet’s party is at least half “the Nationalist Union”.
      On the other hand, parties that even hinted that they are left leaning (Labor and Livni) got smacked. At best, the total “jewish left/center” accounts for 27 seats or about 22%.
      So if anything, this election shows that the drift to the right became almost a flood.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      As you wrote Guy, Lapid positioned himself as “old Likud, the genuine recipe”. Moreover, he is not burdened by the issue that split Likud and Kadima. So the shift to Yesh Atid may reflect the reaction for the right wing takeover of Likud.

      The second issue that I theorize could be important is the representation of the “Russians”. Yisrael Beitenu made a pretty lousy job of that (e.g. the issue of civil marriages) except for patronage and emotional satisfaction of having “our guy” as a champion. Thus it was hard to retain all the voters after Likud/YB merging, and the indictment suggesting that Lieberman, however adorable, will not be there for much longer.

      Reply to Comment
    5. stevelaudig

      It remains an aparthedist, Zionist state warring against neighbors while living on the American tit.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        It remains the only tiny, little Jewish State in the whole world, surrounded by Muslim /Arab religious states intent on her destruction.

        Reply to Comment
    6. NormanF

      The main problem is Arab intransigence compounded by the rise of Islamism in the Middle East.

      Today, the existence of these two facts make a compromise peace impossible. The Arabs will take a long time to rise to the civilizational level of the Jews.

      This is not racism. Arab savagery towards fellow Arabs demonstrates what Israel is up against. Since peace by definition is impossible, Israel must weather the storm.

      Perhaps someday things will change on the other side. But not for many more decades.

      Reply to Comment
      • Dany

        And by “civilizational level” you mean racist slurs like yours?

        Reply to Comment
      • rose

        Keep sleeping NormaF..enjoy the fake bubble in which you think to live in.

        Reply to Comment
    7. I suggest Lapid’s showing reflects voters searching for a home, maybe for a reason to have a home. If these are upper middle class this implies a latent potential for organizing between elections, if Lapid is serious about having a party rather than pedestal. My perception of Israeli politics this last cycle is of a system with very little pivotal conflict with outcomes between elections. This gives the ruling coaltion time to build up its support base (settlers, settlements, and investment therein, for example; or Bibi’s Iran defesne push), which should place the coalition in a fine position next election. Yet the ruling coaltion did not advance this time, because, I think, its policies (or lack thereof) have alienated a growing proportion of the electorate. Lapid won by not being a party man. My guess is that his electorate is policy amorphous, alienated not from security but from its settler attachment. If Lapid is serious about a party, and about being different than the elite he is entering, he will force internal Jewish issues as price of play. Someone has to make issues–realized issues–if a party is to be constructed.

      I still see or know of little evidence of group formation and maintenance between elections–except on the religious right. You have a signal something is wrong; now people must build on that to prepare for future elections.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Noam, I think your point about the ethnic vote must be highly qualified and leaves out critical feastures about the Israeli electorate. 1. It is based entirely on personal impressions, since we cannot know how Ashkenazim and Mizrahim actually voted. 2. This makes it sound like everyone in Israel identifies definitively as one or the other, which is simply wrong. Probably up to 1/3 of the J pop is mixed at this point, and when we ask people in surveys, many simply don’t have a good answer, or say “both.” It is inaccurate and misleading to lump them together according to your impression of Ash/Miz. 3. You cannot possibly leave out the voters’ level of religious observance, and the subgroups/different shades of political attitudes that reflect breakdowns within Haredi, Nat/Relig, Masorti, secular. Even if you think ethnicity is more dominant, by leaving out religion you ignore the single most consistent factor that is predictive and correlated w left/right attitudes (more than ethnicity) in decades of survey research. All this is not to deny a role for ethnicity but to call it the “most ethnic elections” doesn’t say much without data or a basis for comparison. What do you call 1977, for example?

      Reply to Comment
      • I think that you are missing the broad picture in the details. yes, much of the population has blended, but on a cultural level the ethnic gap is not only present, but dominant – it’s enough to watch an Israeli comedy show or any reality show to see that all the tension is around the ethnic issue. Also, note that I said it is a correlation of ethnicity and economy that affected the vote. It’s enough to look at the map of the votes to see this:

        As for religion, the academia’s favorite factor, I believe it to be a dependent variable and not an independent, hence the absolute correlation with politics. Religion cannot explain political behavior because it is political behavior.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Noam, it won’t do just to write off the most consisting finding in ISraeli polling as “academic.” There are all sorts of polls, they all test ethnicity and religion and one is simply more dominant than the other. It’s fine to decide that’s wrong, but you’re not showing any evidence. It is not simply a “detail”. And again – even if you could prove it, leaving out religion entirely is a severe disservice to those people – an imposition of your personal understanding of religion on them. It ignores the many shades of religious interpretation leading to different political attitudes. Finally, the map never mentions the word ethnicity (which you assume correlated 1:1 with class), and it is no surprise that some polis win on their home turf – like everywhere in the world. Perhaps more surprising that Shelley won in Kerem Ha’teimanim. In short, I believe you should qualify the entire point about ethnicity by saying that it’s 100% your opinion; not an objective observation.

      Reply to Comment
      • I didn’t say the ethnicity is the same as class. this is clearly untrue. I said that it is the interaction of ethnicity and class that produces voting patterns – especially reflected in this fragmented system.

        Reply to Comment
        • To butt in:

          1) In a fragmented society, proclaimed ethnic identity can become a socio-political goal. One then sees extremes in ethnicity with others blending together on the outside of this.

          2) Pronounced religion can subsume politics as a primary goal. This tends to happen on the religious right, but consider left Catholics during the Central American “dirty wars,” or Gandhi, who was eventually assasinated by a fundamentalist Hindu.

          Pronounced religion will then be a strong indicator of attitudes, but so too will pronounced ethnic idenity, both leaving out many others. My favorite hypothesis remains that a growing portion of the Israeli political economy is detached from effective organization outside the elites. Pronounced religion and pronounced ethnicity, distinct, are attempts to form some form of group idenity/action. In your land, both can be powerful and durable. Torah gravitates religion to the national right. One pronounced ethnicity to the center? If I knew what your center was.

          End butt

          Reply to Comment
    10. rico

      Hi Noam,
      thanks for your text! Is it possible to count the ballots separatly for Israelis left and right of the green line or do you have a link with this data?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Tal

      Point 6: “No shared politics for Arabs and Jews”, is actually not true. Meretz’s number 5 is Isawi Farej, an Arab Israeli from Kfar Qassem. And in his hometown, 34.76% of residents did vote for Meretz. So, to say that Jewish politicians even on the left don’t try to bridge the gap is untrue. There is much room for improvement, but now that there is an Arab Knesset Member in Meretz, there is hope that there will be progress on that front.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        As a matter of fact, #6 is 100% true.

        You see, Meretz does not represent politics which is accepted by anyone but delusional and poorly educated Jewish minority.

        Reply to Comment
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