Have demographics doomed the Israeli left?

Did immigration and high Orthodox birthrate doom Israel’s left to perpetual opposition status? Analysis.

David Rosenberg,

Netanyahu
Netanyahu
Flash 90

Two recent polls which show the Likud continuing to gain ground despite recommendations to indict incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suggest that the four-term premier, who will become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister next year, is well-positioned to win a fifth term (and fourth consecutive term) in the 2019 election.

One poll, conducted by the Midgam polling firm earlier this week for Channel 13 showed the Likud rising from 30 seats to 35 mandates if new elections were held today.

The results of the second poll, conducted by Geocartography, were released in part on Army Radio Wednesday, and show the Likud winning a stunning 42 seats – the most the party has won since Menachem Begin led Likud in the 1981 election, and the most any party in Israel has won since 1992.

While the dramatic results of these two polls can be attributed at least partially to recent events including the recent skirmishes with Syria and Iran, the riots on the Gaza border, the diplomatic wins for Israel with the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Likud’s success must also be seen in the broader context of past elections.

The Likud has won five of the last six national elections (2015, 2013, 2009, 2003, and 2001), while the Israeli left, led by Labor, hasn’t won an election in almost two decades.

Clearly, the Likud’s advantage is defined by more than just recent events.

A Demographic Edge

A decade and a half ago, liberal writer John Judis, then an editor at The New Republic, predicted that with the rapid demographic changes taking place in the United States as a result of relatively high levels of immigration coupled with low birthrates, the Republican party would find itself struggling to compete at the national level.

In his The Emerging Democratic Majority, Judis argued that unless the Republican party moved sharply to the center on key issues, it would find itself as the permanent opposition party, unable to effectively compete on the national level. Sure, the thesis went, a Republican candidate might win the White House if a scandal or economic disaster handicapped his Democratic opponent.

But these wins, the argument goes, would be few and far between. For all intents and purposes, the coming generation would be dominated politically by Democrats.

Or so Judis predicted in 2002.

While outsized victories by Democrats in 2006, 2008, and 2012 seemed to reaffirm this line of thinking, in 2015 Judis recanted on his prediction, instead arguing that there was now an “emerging Republican advantage”.

The mass-migration of blue collar whites in areas coastal elites dismissively termed “Middle America” now deprived Democrats of the electoral lock that seemed inevitable. Republicans, Judis argued, now have something of an advantage over Democrats, evidenced by landslide victories in 2010 and 2014, and reinforced a year after Judis’ change of heart by President Trump’s 2016 win.

Are Demographics Destiny in Israel?

Judis’ about-face on the effect of demographic trends in voting says a great deal not only about the complexity of immigration to America and its net effect on party affiliation, but also the mercurial nature of America’s massive and massively diverse electorate.

In Israel, by comparison, voting patterns seem far more stable.

For the first 29 years since Israel declared independence, the Israeli left, led by the Israeli Labor Alignment (or its predecessor, Mapai) governed the country, winning the first eight national elections.

Yet Labor, and the Israeli left in general, has failed to win the premiership since 1999, and have been out of office for 17 years.

From the election for the 9th Knesset, held in May 1977, through the election for the 20th Knesset in March 2015, Israel has held 12 legislative elections, plus a 13th election in 2001 which included only a direct vote for the premiership.

In nine of those 12 Knesset elections, the Likud and its natural allies – the bloc consisting of right-wing, center-right, and religious parties won a majority of seats, including in the razor-thin 1984 election which produced a narrowly divided 61-59 Knesset, leading to a rotational government. In a tenth election – the June 1992 vote for the 13th Knesset – the Israeli right actually picked up slightly more votes than the left, but lost in the seat count 59 to 61.

To put it a different way, left-wing and center-left Jewish Zionist parties (excluding Arab factions) averaged 63.6 seats in the eight Knesset elections held from 1949 to 1977, and won absolute majorities in all but two. The Israeli right-religious bloc averaged just 49.5 seats in that same period

Since 1977, the Israeli left (sans the Arab parties) has failed to win a 61-seat majority in a single Knesset. The right-religious bloc has averaged 62.3 seats since 1977, while the Israeli left has averaged 49.4 seats. This decline has continued in recent years, with the right-wing bloc rising slightly to 62.4 seats on average per Knesset, while the left and center-left bloc fell to 47.2

Israel’s Demographic Sea Change

What has befallen the Israeli left since 1977, and left them seemingly unable to compete with Israel’s right-wing and religious bloc?

While the most obvious answer, the failure of the peace process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, is tempting, it’s also inadequate, failing to account for the gradual decline of the Labor party and its predecessors over the past half century.

Immigration and the shift in Israel’s Jewish ethnic composition offer another possible explanation.

The Jewish demographic shift has been in many ways the elephant in the room of Israeli politics. Inside Israel, the proclivity of not only the Orthodox but also Sephardim – Jews who immigrated to Israel from North Africa and the Middle East – to support right-wing parties is well known, but remains a sensitive subject.

While the ethnic voting patterns in Israel aren’t as polarized as America’s, the 2015 election reinforced the importance of both the Sephardic vote and the burgeoning Orthodox population to the Israeli right.

When Israel was founded in 1948, the country was overwhelmingly secular and Ashkenazi, with Jews of Eastern European origin making up 80% of the country’s Jewish population. Over the past 70 years, however, the Ashkenazi majority has disappeared, with just over 50% of Israeli Jews being non-Ashkenazi.

Just how much has that shift affected the outcomes of Israeli elections?

According to data collected by the polling firm Panel Proyect Hamidgam and analyzed by Dr. Dror Feitelson, first and second generation immigrants from Asia and Africa made up roughly 45% of all Likud voters in 2015, but only about 30% of Labor voters and 20% of Meretz voters. Ashkenazi voters however, not including the post-1989 wave of immigrants from the USSR, made up just 20% of Likud voters, but gave Meretz more than 55% of its votes, and made up roughly 50% of all Labor voters.

Religion and Politics

One explanation for the difference in voting patterns between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic or Mizrachi Jews, Feitelson has argued, is the fact that non-Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to be traditional, rather than secular.

While Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews are noticeably more likely to vote for right-wing parties regardless of their level of religious observance, the widest difference in voting patterns, Feitelson claims, is caused by religiosity.

Indeed, haredi and other Orthodox voters voted overwhelmingly in 2015 for either a haredi or right-wing faction. Even voters identifying as ‘traditional’ skewed heavily towards right-wing or religious parties.

With a significantly higher birthrate, the strong affinity of religious and traditional voters for right-wing parties was long viewed as a demographic peril for the Israeli left. As of 2014, the Chotam organization revealed in 2015 study, the total fertility rate among secular Israeli Jewish women was just 2.1 – enough to sustain the secular population, but not enough to fuel growth.

Haredi women, by comparison, average roughly seven children, compared to an average fertility rate of 4.2 among non-haredi religious women, and 3 children for traditional, non-Orthodox women.

Salvation from the (former) USSR?

In the early 1990s, however, it appeared as if the Israeli left would be fortified demographically by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the flood of predominantly secular Ashkenazi Jews from behind the Iron Curtain to Israel.

And in 1992, the prediction seemed to hold true, as Soviet émigrés helped bring Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin to power. But the support of former Soviet immigrants for the Israel left would be short-lived.

Much to Labor’s chagrin, however, it became apparent during the 1990’s that the Soviet immigrants were culturally distant from the country’s secular elite. Rather than amalgamate into the Israeli left, the new immigrants quickly formed their own parties, becoming in effect a third Israeli-Jewish ethnic group. To the horror of those expecting demographic salvation, this new voting bloc turned hawkish, reflected in the meteoric rise of Avigdor Liberman’s secular yet staunchly nationalistic Yisrael Beytenu party. Labor’s great white hope had been a mirage.

Does the Israeli Left Have a Future?

Despite the enduring nature of the Israeli right’s apparent demographic advantage, the Likud cannot remain in power forever.

Voters invariably grow fatigued of a single party in power for an extended time, and look to the opposition to change course. In the US, Democrats held the White House for 20 years (1933-1953) before the Republicans, with a popular general at the top of the ticket, managed to regain power.

Nevertheless, Israel’s demographic makeup will continue to act as a sort of handicap on the left, enabling the right to win in otherwise difficult circumstances.

While the pendulum of politics must inevitably swing back, unless and until either the trajectory of Israel’s demographics change dramatically, or the voting patterns of demographic groups change, electoral victories by the Israeli left or center-left will likely be few and far between.


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