Has the Israeli Right Peaked?

For decades, right-wing parties were on the rise. But as religious voters become more secular and a corruption scandal taints the Likud party, the country’s rightist bloc seems to have hit a ceiling.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past an electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019.
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past an electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently had one of the best weeks of his career. He beamed beside U.S. President Donald Trump in late January as the two leaders released the U.S. vision for future Israeli-Palestinian relations; Netanyahu triumphantly declared that the one-sided plan authorized immediate Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank.

The next day, Netanyahu secured Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pardon for a young Israeli woman languishing in a Russian prison, positioning himself as the redeemer of Israeli citizens in distress. Netanyahu then traveled to Uganda to meet another longtime national leader, Yoweri Museveni, burnishing his credentials as a prime minister expanding Israel’s ties around the world and especially in Africa, before disclosing his recent meeting with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of Sudan to discuss normalizing relations with the traditionally hostile country.

The rapid-fire diplomatic achievements showcased Netanyahu’s finest quality in the eyes of many voters: his unrivalled savvy as an international statesman. Those who oppose Netanyahu gnashed their teeth, grumbling that he will surely triumph in Israel’s upcoming and unprecedented third election within one year.

The real question is not why the two ideological blocs are paralyzed but why they are even close.

But the polls tell a different story. Two weeks after Netanyahu’s wonderful week, horse-race surveys barely budged. Since the previous election in September 2019, nearly 60 simulated election polls have been published, as of this writing. In all but one, neither the right-wing group of parties that Netanyahu leads nor the center and left-wing parties that represent the de facto opposition reached a majority of 61 seats out of 120 needed to form a coalition government.

The polls show both ideological blocs winning only 55 to 58 seats (one recent outlier showed the opposition bloc at 59). Each bloc would still depend on a kingmaker party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, an erstwhile right-wing coalition fixture, to create a government. Lieberman has been polling at seven or eight seats—virtually no change from the eight seats he holds today. Hence the yearlong political stalemate.

But the real question is not why the two ideological blocs are paralyzed but why they are even close.

Israel famously shifted rightward during the Second Palestinian Intifada of 2000 to 2005, a trend that was cemented by the end of the 2000s. Young Jewish Israelis who came of age during the bloody years of the Second Intifada expressed particularly right-wing positions by the late 2000s. This finding held among young cohorts for the next decade and seemed to herald right-wing victories for years to come.

Instead, not only did the right wing fail to grow; over the last two election cycles, the number of Knesset seats won by the ideologically right-wing parties, including Lieberman’s, declined from 67 in 2015, to 65 in the April 2019 elections, to just 63 this past September. Despite Likud party primaries in December—which Netanyahu won handily—and the widespread coverage of the Trump plan, the dead heat of the ideological blocs has not budged in the polls.

Another trend during the Second Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s was that Israeli Jewish left-wingers flocked to the center, according to self-definition in surveys I conducted. The right inched up from roughly 40 percent of Jewish voters to the 55 percent range today. At present, when Arab and Jewish citizens are weighted together, about half of the Israeli electorate self-identify as right-wing in surveys; just over 40 percent consider themselves centrist or left-wing combined (the remainder do not identify). Arab citizens are more left-identified, but they constitute less than 20 percent of Israeli adults and turn out to vote at a significantly lower rate than Jews.

Self-defined ideology correlates closely with the voters’ choice of supporting a right-wing, centrist, or left-wing party. Hence, right-wing parties prevailed in recent years, winning a modest majority of seats for the last decade.

The trend seemed destined to continue: From around 2010 onward, young Israeli Jews between the ages of 18 to 34 became particularly right-wing, then grew up and populated the 35 to 55-year-old demographic. The more dovish 55-and-up crowd became the outlier. Self-defined left-wingers dwindled to just 12 to 15 percent of Jews and barely 20 percent of the total population. The upward march of the right wing looked inexorable.

It wasn’t hard to explain the rightward drift among young people. In addition to growing up during the Intifada, they were subject to a barrage of right-wing leadership hammering home the hopelessness of peace and championing nationalist ideals.

There is a demographic component, too: religious constituencies in Israel, both Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox but also “traditional”—moderately religious Jews are consistently and heavily right-wing. Religious people tend to have many more children, boosting the ranks of the younger cohorts with a dependable source of right-wing voters.

These trends make the current poll paralysis even more surprising. It’s not only the right-wing bloc that looks stuck. The ruling party, Likud, did increase its share from 30 seats in 2015 to 35 seats in April. But Likud should have done even better in September, when it folded a small breakaway party, Kulanu, back into its ranks, theoretically giving it the four seats that party won in April. Instead of winning 39, it declined to 32, and no poll so far shows an upward trend for Likud beyond a seat or two.

The results in March could always bring surprises. But the stagnation for the right wing in both ballots and polls suggests there is a ceiling for the right. Just like the right-wing surge of the 2000s, a combination of issues, ideology, and demography could provide the explanation.

In the September elections, a small number of right-wingers were clearly fed up with Netanyahu’s lengthy and stormy term in power. Some defected to the further-right, ultranationalist Yamina party or to the religious party Shas, which won one more seat than it had in April. Some supported Lieberman, staking out a right-wing but anti-Netanyahu position; his party gained three seats between April and September. A small portion of Likud voters reported defecting to the centrist challenger Blue and White.

But the right-wing bloc’s apparent ceiling points to deeper trends, found mainly in demographics and sociology of religious Jews. For years, demographers and pundits have predicted that the high birth rates of religious Israeli Jews would turn this group into an ever-larger minority and eventually a majority of Israeli society.

Orthodox Jews have an average of four children per family, and the average for the ultra-Orthodox—known as haredim—hovers at around seven, according to the researchers Alex Weinreb and Nachum Blass at the Taub Center think tank. Twenty years ago, my surveys of Jewish samples, weighted to official demographics, showed 6 percent were haredi and 10 percent who were what’s referred to as “national religious.” There should have been massive growth since then. Instead, the most recent available data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics from 2016 shows that 9 percent of Jewish adults self-define as haredi, and another 14 percent as national religious. This is growth, but it’s hardly the projected national takeover.

The Taub Center analysts note that, correspondingly, the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism’s vote share grew by 3.2 percent each year from 1999 to the 2015 elections, but not 4.3 percent, as demographics would have predicted. This raises the question of where the missing religious and right-wing voters have gone.

The Taub Center study identifies religious attrition during school years as a main cause: The authors tally about 10 to 13 percent of ultra-Orthodox kids who leave their schools for less religious institutions, whether to religious but not ultra-Orthodox schools or to secular schools, by eighth grade. About 20 percent of pupils in national religious schools leave by eighth grade—the large majority of them, and fully 21 percent of boys, are enrolled in secular schools by then, with much smaller movement in the opposite direction. The trend continues as kids reach their early 20s.

The decline in religious observance is frequently accompanied by a shift of political orientation. The Taub Center report notes that haredi children who shift to non-haredi schools may well leave that religious community and cease voting for the associated right-wing parties as adults.

Of course, religious defectors could shift to secular right-wing parties without necessarily changing political sides. But long-term electoral trends show that while the haredi and Orthodox population’s growth is slowing down, the right wing has failed to grow its electoral bloc. In 2003, the right-wing and religious parties won 69 seats combined. Despite the last decade of nationalist and often racist populism from the political elite and the general Israeli social environment, the best showing of the Israeli ideological right-wing parties over the last 10 years was only 67 seats (in 2015), and currently stands at 63.

Prior to the September election, I met a woman in her late 20s who had grown up in one of the most hard-line West Bank settlements. She and her husband became less religious in recent years, and she began to consider the need for greater separation of religion and state in the public sphere. Then she met a friend of friends who refused to drink wine from settlements, which shocked and offended her, but she slowly began hearing arguments, perspectives, and information about the conflict that she hadn’t considered before. She voted for Likud in 2015, but by April 2019 supported Hadash, a Jewish-Arab party representing the far-left of the political spectrum. These days, I encounter people with similar stories everywhere; among this woman’s eight siblings, three are no longer religious.

None of this means there will be a definitive right-wing loss in March. Anecdotes and slow shifts do not determine elections held within months of one another, and depending on the decision of one man, Lieberman, the right could still find itself victorious. But if the long-term trends continue, Israel’s right might be past its prime.

In the current campaign, the author is consulting for the Joint List, a left-wing alliance of Arab-majority parties.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political analyst and policy fellow at the Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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