Commentary Magazine

Reading the Israeli Electorate

Israel’s elections last May held two surprises: Benjamin Netanyahu’s upset victory over Shimon Peres in the contest for Prime Minister, and the dramatic gains made by smaller parties in the contest for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. While analysts have focused on the first surprise, the meaning of the elections only becomes apparent in the light of the second.

Up until this year, Israelis voting in national elections could cast their ballot only for the party, not for the man, of their choice. Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, any party that garnered 1.5 percent of the vote was assured of at least one Knesset seat; the head of the party scoring highest would then be invited to assemble a governing coalition, i.e., one controlling at least 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Effectively, this meant that a voter wanting a say in the choice of Prime Minister would be well advised to cast his ballot either for Labor or Likud, the two largest parties, for it was a sure bet that the leader of one of them would be asked to put the governing coalition together.

The electoral-reform law of 1992 was designed to strengthen the hand of the Prime Minister by providing for his direct election. This, in turn, would fix a major problem in the existing system: the ability of small parties to extort concessions from the leader of the winning party by threatening to ally with his rival and thus create a different governing majority. With the new law in place, the reasoning went, the smaller parties would either have to join the victorious Prime Minister or remain on the outside altogether, and their bargaining power would be correspondingly reduced.

In actuality, the law of unintended consequences came into play. Thanks to the reform, an Israeli voter could now have a voice in determining who, personally, would be at the helm of the state and cast his ballot for whichever party, large or small, happened best to represent his own particular views. The result was a wholly unexpected gain in the influence of small parties and a new inconvenience for the Prime Minister, now more dependent than ever on these parties in creating and sustaining a governing coalition.

Still, whatever its drawbacks as an electoral system, the new arrangements are a boon for the analyst. More so than in previous elections, how Israelis cast their votes showed what issues were crucial to them.



The national vote was essentially divided among eleven parties. Three were religious: the (strongly Zionist) National Religious party; Shas, whose appeal has largely been to Sephardi voters; and United Torah Judaism, whose voters come from the yeshiva world, traditionally dubious of Zionism. Three parties were ethnic, two of them Arab: Hadash, which grew out of the old Arab Communist party, and the United Arab List, many of whose voters are adherents of the Islamic movement (the more extreme refuse to have anything to do with Israeli elections). The third ethnic party, Yisrael Ba-Aliya (a name with the double meaning of Israel-on-the-rise and Israel-for-immigration) was new to this election; established by Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, it appeals to the large recent contingent from the former Soviet Union.

Then there were the two parties identified with the “peace process,” Labor and Meretz, of which the latter is an odd blend of the old far-Left Mapam party, the “good-government” Shinui party, and the anti-religious and pro-feminist Civil Rights Movement. And finally there were the three security-oriented parties: Likud, of which Netanyahu was the head; Moledet, whose platform rested on a “population exchange” of Arabs from Israel; and the Third Way, a new party created by two Knesset members who split with Labor by insisting on the necessity of retaining the Golan Heights.

It is well-known that in the overall vote for Prime Minister, Likud’s Netanyahu edged out Labor’s Peres by a slim margin: 0.7 percent. It has also been observed, however, that if the Arab vote is peeled away—Israeli Arabs, with the exception of the relatively small number of Christians among them, voted virtually unanimously for Peres1—the election for Prime Minister was not a squeaker at all; among Israeli Jews, Netanyahu enjoyed a hefty winning margin of 11 percent. But what has scarcely been remarked upon is that in the Knesset vote, the anti-Labor sentiment among Jews resembled not a trend but a landslide.



Israelis who wanted to endorse the policies of the previous four years, and to ensure that a reelected Peres government would enjoy maximum flexibility to continue its path, could have voted either for Labor or for the even more dovish Meretz. But in the Knesset vote, Labor and Meretz won only 43 seats between them, down from 54 in the previous elections, and four or five of those 43 came from Arab votes. Thus, if Israeli Jews used their prime-ministerial ballot to repudiate Shimon Peres by a margin of 11 percent, they used their Knesset ballot to repudiate the Labor bloc by a stunning margin of 25 percent.

What lay behind this massive rejection? In the Western press the elections were often portrayed as a referendum on the peace process, and clearly opponents of the Oslo accords did vote against both Peres and Labor. But it is difficult to sum up the elections simply in those terms. After all, the Likud platform, too, promised not only to recognize the accords and the “facts on the ground,” but to continue the diplomatic process. As for Netanyahu himself, the closer election day came, the more he strove to reassure Israelis who were as nervous about going backward as they were about moving forward. Promising to continue a process which he had earlier described as a historic blunder of the first magnitude, Netanyahu simply proposed to bring “peace with security.”

Since the election, some have characterized the Netanyahu victory as a triumph of fear over hope. If we discount the negative moral judgment implied in such an evaluation, there is, indeed, something to it: among Israeli Jews, well-grounded fears had increasingly dissipated ill-founded hopes. Although the Rabin government had promised that its deal with Yasir Arafat would bring greater security, there ensued instead a steady drumroll of casualties, much more intense than at the height of the intifada and all to the seeming indifference, if not the encouragement, of Arafat and the Palestinian public. Nor did the government seem to have a viable response: after each atrocity, Rabin (and later Peres) would describe the victims as “sacrifices for peace” and vow not to give in to terror by halting the peace process. As Peres put it after 59 Israelis were killed in suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem early in 1996, “We are a quarter-hour from peace.”

The security issue, which Netanyahu pressed hard in the campaign, clearly cannot be minimized. But if it had truly been uppermost in people’s minds, the parties focusing most intently on security should have reaped the benefit of the Labor bloc’s decline. In fact, however, the “security” bloc also ceded ground. Moledet lost one of its three seats, and Likud, despite its merger with the tough-talking Tsomet, ended up with the same number of mandates, 32, it had won in 1992. Even counting the four seats won by the Third Way, that left the security bloc with a loss of two seats.

Where, then, did the votes go? Apart from the seven seats garnered by Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba-Aliyah, the major shift was to the religious parties, which together went from 16 to 23 Knesset seats. Gains were made by the National Religious Party and Shas, both of which nearly doubled their representation, while United Torah Judaism remained stable at four seats. The strong showing of these parties is the single most significant outcome of the elections, and what stands most in need of explanation.



For many Israelis, it turns out, the central question posed by the election was not how to ensure the continuing peace process, or even how best to ensure Israel’s security, but something still more fundamental—namely, how to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Indeed, that this identity was on the line seemed to be clearer to most Israelis than were the relative merits of the peace process. According to a 1995 poll by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, only 15 percent of the Jewish population believed Israel would remain a Jewish state under a Labor government, in contrast to 50 percent who believed that it would remain Jewish under Likud. This was a staggering finding—at least to anyone who had not closely followed the ideological crumbling of Zionism that seemed inexorably to accompany the Labor government’s pursuit of the peace process.

On the surface, this was itself a paradoxical development. For at least a decade, Labor’s strongest argument for territorial compromise with the Arabs had always been that only thus would it be possible for the state to preserve its Jewish character. The 1992 Labor platform rejected “rule over the Palestinian population” on the grounds that this would “lead to a bi-national state,” which “is not the vision of a return to Zion.” Initially, Oslo too was sold to the public as an ideological endpoint: Israel would rid itself of the burden of ruling over a million rebellious Arabs, and could go back to the business of fulfilling its destiny as a homeland for the Jewish people.

But it soon emerged that for many leaders of Labor, Oslo was not the end but only the beginning. No less a figure than Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo himself, made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the entire Jewish character of the state was up for review. Peres’s book, The New Middle East, published in 1993 in the afterglow of the ceremony on the White House lawn, foresaw an end to “particularist nationalism,” the Zionist variety presumably included, and the dawn of a new “ultranational” age.

In left-wing circles in Israel, such talk is the essence of what is known as “post-Zionism.” Its ideological standard-bearer is Meretz, Labor’s junior partner, which not only demands statehood for the Palestinians and full equality for Israeli Arabs but complete separation of the state from Judaism. (It also includes such staples of Western leftism as the right of homosexuals to marry, mandated representation for women on boards of unions and government corporations, and a struggle against “racism” in all its forms.) In the elections, while Meretz took just over 7 percent of the vote nationally, including a sizable Arab vote, in Israel’s wealthiest communities it won more than double its national average.2

Even before Oslo, the previous Labor government had shown its post-Zionist colors by appointing Meretz’s most outspoken radical, Shulamit Aloni, to the post of Minister of Education. She promptly denounced school trips to Auschwitz—they made students “nationalistic”—and demanded that a reference to God be dropped from the prayer for fallen servicemen. Her deputy called for changing Israel’s national anthem because Arabs could not identify with it. Aloni’s successor, Amnon Rubinstein, proposed through his senior adviser that an “archaic” emphasis on Jewish values and culture in the curriculum be replaced by multiculturalism; a professor who had compared the Bible to Mein Kampf and the Israel Defense Forces to the SS was put in charge of reforming the history curriculum.

In a different branch of government, the task of revamping the army’s ethical code went to another professor who set out to produce a “universalist” code, deleting references to Jews, Zionism, and the land of Israel—the last of which he described in an interview as “first and foremost the name of a malignant disease.” The Ministry of Tourism decided to focus on developing Islamic tourism, while the Ministry of Religious Affairs issued new guidelines for disbursing funds, giving preference to (among others) organizations promoting Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca. Even the Parks Department called for cutting the birth rate to zero and, if necessary, eliminating the Law of Return in the name of protecting the national parks.3

In addition to all this, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in September 1995 by a religious fanatic had the effect, on the Left, of putting Judaism itself in the dock, as Labor supporters held the entire religious community responsible for the “climate” that had produced Yi-gal Amir. The B’nai Akiva movement of religious youth, hitherto highly respected for its unique blend of moral values and patriotism, overnight found itself demonized by some commentators as downright seditious. In one overwhelmingly powerful gesture, Israel’s chief rabbis were not invited to participate in Rabin’s funeral.



It is against this background that Jews in Israel cast their Knesset votes. In considering that vote, it is important to remember that the vast majority were under the impression that the next Prime Minister would be from Labor, which had built up a significant advantage in the wake of the Rabin assassination. Although late polls showed Peres’s lead shrinking, even Netanyahu voters, by a wide margin, expected Peres to prevail. This was probably a factor in the poor showing of both Likud and Moledet in the balloting for the Knesset—for if Peres were going to win anyway, a vote for either of those parties would have been wasted. To influence the behavior of the next government, the best course was to use one’s vote on behalf of a possible coalition partner, and in a Labor government, though the religious parties might realistically be included, Likud and Moledet were certain not to be.

Hence the shift to the smaller parties, and in particular to those which could be expected to hold fast on the issue of the Jewish identity of the state. Even a purely “ethnic” party like Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba-Aliyah was explicitly concerned with this issue. “As victims of 70 years of forced assimilation,” said Sharansky, Soviet Jews in Israel had a passionate interest in “strengthening society’s connection to Jewish tradition and values.” But it was the religious parties which, to the average voter, most embodied that tradition and those values, and it was to them that a startling number of ballots flowed.

Of course there can be no doubt that the religious parties made extraordinary efforts to bestir their traditional constituents, who did indeed turn out at the polls in impressive numbers. But that by itself can hardly account for the extent of their success. Perhaps as many as half the votes for the strictly Orthodox Shas, for example, came from non-Orthodox Jews, and it was they who helped catapult that party into the third largest in the Knesset.



If, in the years after Oslo, the Israeli public had become convinced that genuine peace was at hand, might most voters have overlooked the Labor bloc’s movement toward a de-Zionization of the state? It is certainly possible. But at the very least, what the Knesset returns indicate is that much of the Israeli electorate felt the country was losing its Jewish identity without achieving peace. And those returns also remind us of something else that is often overlooked in glib analyses of Israel as a country falling increasingly into two hopelessly polarized camps, the one secular, the other religious.

A relatively small proportion (roughly 20 percent) of Israel’s Jewish population is Orthodox. But to a remarkable extent, Israelis in general are religiously conservative. A 1993 survey conducted by the Guttman Institute for Applied Social Research found that a full 75 percent described themselves as religiously “traditional,” while 68 percent said they kept a kosher home. It was these “centrist” voters, including many from Labor’s own ranks, whom Labor alienated. In this respect, perhaps the best post-mortem on the elections was offered by a Labor-party spokesman, who said of those voters, “We don’t understand them. They are saying religion in society and education has to be seen as a central concern. They are a far more important element than we thought.” Indeed.


1 Though the subject lies outside the confines of this article, the changes that have occurred among Israeli Arabs are full of troubling implications for the future. This is a population that has recently grown in numbers and, especially since Oslo, in national self-assertion. In the past, most Arabs cast their votes for Jewish parties; but in this year's balloting, the two Arab parties almost doubled in strength, going from five to nine Knesset seats. Their program has also become radicalized: in addition to calling for a PLO state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the dismantling of all Jewish settlements in the territories, the parties demand autonomous institutions for Arabs and insist that Israel become “a state for all its citizens,” with no ethnic or religious criteria (in other words, the Law of Return, guaranteeing citizenship to any Jew who immigrates to Israel, should be abolished).

While Arabs now make up only 12 percent of adults of voting age, they constitute 17 percent of the population. With each passing election, their votes will count more heavily.

2 Meretz exhibited its most astonishing strength in kibbutzim, winning 31 percent of the vote. The grandchildren of Zionist pioneers would now seem to be in the vanguard of those turning their backs on traditional Zionism.

3 For a more extended discussion of these developments, see Yoram Hazony's “The Zionist Idea and Its Enemies” in the May COMMENTARY and also the exchange in this issue between Mr. Hazony and Amnon Rubinstein, beginning on p. 14.—Ed.

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