During the 1990s, nearly a million immigrants arrived in Israel, about 85 percent from the former Soviet Union. This group’s size and demographic characteristics had a crucial effect on the composition and nature of Israeli society. These newcomers found in Israel a refuge from a crumbling communist empire that had shaped much of their historical and cultural thinking. Natan Sharansky, a “refusenik” and an immigrant from the Soviet Union, explained to President Clinton, perhaps jocularly, why he was the only Israeli cabinet member who opposed the peace agreement the president was trying to promote at Camp David in 2000: “I can’t vote for this, I’m Russian. . . . I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.”
The 2009 Democracy Index revealed that “in general, the immigrants’ attitudes are less liberal and less tolerant in almost every realm and concerning every topic examined.” For example, 77 percent of former Soviet immigrants in the survey supported policies to encourage Arab emigration from Israel. The right-wing sensibility of these people, who are largely secular, stems not from religious attitudes but from a perception of the Jewish society as “landlord” of Israel, with aspirations to exercise strong national sovereignty over a territory that should be as extensive and secure as possible.
Former Knesset member Mossi Raz of Meretz, in analyzing the rise of the immigrant Right and the dovish political camp’s unprecedented decline in the latest elections, said that “these million and a half immigrants, who arrived in recent decades, constitute 20 percent of the voters, but Meretz and the Labor Party together received only 5 percent of their votes.”
Even traditional supporters of the Zionist Left, such as secular people of the middle and upper classes, shifted toward the Right, in part due to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Likud Party’s success in creating a conceptual turnabout in Israeli political culture. The conservative Right successfully separated the notion of “prosperity” from the term “peace” and convinced many Israelis that economic growth would emerge if the government merely managed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and practiced a neoliberal economic policy. This trend accelerated when the West declared a “war on terror” following the September 11, 2001, attacks, which gave Israeli enterprises new access to wide markets. As Forbes magazine noted, Israel became the destination for those seeking antiterrorism technology. The stability and prosperity of Israel’s economy, even without conflict resolution, diminished the imperative of peace for many.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens also have undergone significant political changes since Oslo. These shifts, seen in voting patterns, result from the deterioration in the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations. These, in turn, reflect a growing sense of Israel’s changing nature as a state; a mistrust between the two population groups; and a rise in the intensity of hostility and violence between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This process had a twofold impact on voting patterns: first, Arab voter participation declined; and second, more Arabs who did participate gave their votes to Arab rather than Zionist parties. In 1996, for instance, 79.3 percent of eligible Arab voters took part in the first elections after Rabin’s assassination. In 2003, it was 63 percent; in 2009, only 53.6 percent. Yet, as more of these Arab participants voted for Arab parties, the number of parliamentary seats granted to the three Arab political parties rose to eleven, the highest ever. In 1992, only 47.7 percent of Arab voters supported these parties, but in the elections of 1996, after the assassination of Rabin, sectarian voting jumped to 67.3 percent. In the latest elections, 82.1 percent of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens voted for one of these three parties.
THE BALANCE of political power inside Israel is unsustainable, given the demographic facts between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. For the first time since the establishment of the state, the proportion of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli jurisdiction is approaching equilibrium. Sharon, who was aware of this, tried in 2005 to exclude a million and a half Palestinians from this calculation by withdrawing Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Yet, since Israel continued to exercise control over Gaza’s airspace and sea—and to a very large extent over its land borders—Israel is still responsible for this territory and its inhabitants, according to a widely accepted interpretation of international law. Sergio della Pergola, an expert on demography, estimates that by Israel’s hundredth anniversary, the demographic balance between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will return to what it was before Israel’s declaration of independence: two-thirds Arabs and non-Jews and one-third Jews. Demographers estimate that by 2030, the proportion of Jews in the population will decline to 46 percent. According to another estimate, a similar percentage will be reached by 2020, and some even suggest that by that time Jews will constitute only 40 percent of the population. Regardless, by the end of the present decade, Jews are expected to become a minority between the sea and the river.