The Demographic Roots of Israel's Right Turn

January 28, 2013 Topic: Demography Region: Israel

The Demographic Roots of Israel's Right Turn

Though the right didn't do as well as expected in last week's election, it's still palpably stronger than in the old days.

The Israeli parliamentary election has resulted in an electoral deadlock between two electoral blocs: the parties representing the nationalist and religious right and those that are associated with political center and left. But as in American politics, applying the right/left dichotomy to the current Israeli political system doesn’t provide an accurate perspective, one that goes beyond simple ideological labels. Such a narrow view fails to take into account long-term demographic changes and cultural splits that are producing a lasting political transformation.

Take for example America’s Silicon Valley and its Israeli equivalent, the Silicon Wadi, a chain of high-tech start-ups and Internet companies that stretches from Tel-Aviv along the throughway leading to Haifa in the north. These enterprises are the driving force behind the current Israeli economic miracle. You would assume that the programmers, engineers and executives who work here benefited from the free-market policies initiated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and thus would cast their ballots for his Likud (and its ally this election, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu).

But then you could have made similar predictions about the entrepreneurs residing in America’s Silicon Valley, who by a huge margin didn’t vote for the pro-business Mitt Romney. Instead they were fans of government intervention in the economy as represented by Barack Obama.

The majority of Israel’s young and hip high-tech professionals voted for the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party and its leader, the relatively young and hip Yair Lapid. In fact, Lapid has won the votes of the majority of the voters in what could be described as the Greater Tel-Aviv area, the vibrant and liberal urban center on the shores of the Mediterranean, along with its mostly secular middle- and upper-class professionals.

Imagine an Israeli version of a cross between Manhattan, Northern Virginia and Marin County, all places where Obama won big, and you can probably figure out why Lapid did so well in Tel-Aviv while occupying the position of the Big Loser in Israel’s “red” zones. These areas include Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party emerged victorious or Haifa, a middle class and working-class city where Likud was the winner.

The 50-year-old Lapid, a former television journalist and a leading media personality, is a typical “Cosmo-Yuppie” who would probably feel at home in any hopping western metropolis. He is a member of what sociologist Richard Florida refers to as the “creative class” of cognitive analysts, who prosper by using their brain power and education and who tend to subscribe to secular-liberal political and cultural values such as gay marriage (Tel-Aviv actually tops the list of cities that are hospitable to gay tourists).

It is not surprising that Lapid and his voters advocate separation between synagogue and state and demand that ultra-Orthodox Jews do their mandatory military service and not be dependent on government welfare. Their vision of the economy combines a mix of free markets and provision for helping the needy, along the same lines as the Western European model. And while Lapid’s supporters are certainly not a bunch of idealistic peaceniks, they would love to get rid of most of the occupied territories and the Arabs who live there in exchange for a viable peace accord. This would allow them to tie Israel to the European Union and de-couple it from the Muslim Middle East.

But unlike Obama and his electoral coalition, who seem to have demographics on their side, Lapid and the political parties on the Israeli left whose electoral support is based in the “blue” zone of Greater Tel-Aviv and its peripheries are facing the threat of a demographic decline and electoral retrenchment. Meanwhile, the forces of the nationalist and religious right can count on the an electoral base that will be expanding in the coming years, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews and voters who are part of the communities of immigrants from Russia and Arab countries.

Lapid, the son of the late “Tommy” Lapid, a leading political and media figure, is a member of what some Israelis refer to as the “White Tribe,” Israel’s version of the WASPs, the descendants of the first waves of Zionist immigrants who founded Israel. Most of them left behind middle-class families in Europe, and their political orientation, whether socialist or liberal, was a product of secular Western values.

The rising power of Israeli nationalist right in the 1970s reflected the growing demographic power of the more traditional and conservative Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries). Not unlike the “ethnics” and Catholic voters who abandoned the Democratic Party, this group felt alienated by the secular and liberal Ashkenazim (European Jews) and migrated to the political parties that eventually evolved into the Likud. They were joined later by immigrants from the former Soviet Union and exhibit distaste for liberal, not to mention, leftist agendas. Today they are represented by Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman.

At the same time, the increasing power of the Zionist-Orthodox community, a driving force behind the Jewish settlers movement, along with the explosive demographic growth of ultra-Orthodox Jews, produced an electoral reserve for the militant nationalist and theocratic right.

The forty-one-year-old Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) has sent shock waves through the Israeli political system by drawing support from Orthodox Jewish voters who had cast their ballot for the Likud in the past. Bennett has dismissed the two-state solution and wants to annex parts of the West Bank. He represents the future of the nationalist and religious bloc in the same way that Lapid is now the most authentic voice of the remnants of Israel’s secular-liberal tradition.

But then, with the ultra-Orthodox Jews constituting a fourth of Israeli voters in the next decade, the electoral prospects of a more nationalist and theocratic right-wing bloc look quite promising. At the same time, the center-left Zionist parties will probably be deprived of a potential source of electoral growth in the Israeli-Arabs. Like the ultra-Orthodox Jews, they would compose a quarter of Israeli voters in a few years, but are demanding that Israel modify, if not discard, its identity as a Jewish state and become a state “for all its citizens.” Lapid believes that Israel could still remain a Jewish and western democratic state.

But without any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon, the prospects of Israel turning into a militarized Jewish ghetto will grow as the dreams of a prosperous and westernized Greater Tel Aviv vanish into thin air. If Lapid joins the Israeli government, he will have more power to reverse or at least slow this process. There is a future, but it is not clear that Lapid holds it.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.

Image: Flickr/James Cridland. CC BY 2.0.