A photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on the floor with Likud party ballots at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

After weeks of speculation, Israel’s election has finally ended with the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party. As the post-election dust settles, it has grown clear how long-standing cultural and political shifts among the Jewish Israeli public shaped this year’s vote. One trend stands out in particular: the continued dominance of the right alongside the soft-right parties that have drifted from the center.

The Israeli party system can be broken down into five broad camps: the right wing (free-marketers and hawks), the religious (ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists), the center, the left wing (socialists and doves), and the Arabs. Some of the boundaries between these categories are quite firm (such as between the Arab bloc and the cluster of religious parties), whereas others have blurred over time (for example, between the right wing and the religious groups).

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Since 2013, the rightist and Arab camps have increased their share of Knesset seats, and the religious and left-wing groups have lost a few. If the left-wing Labor and center Hatnua alliance are cast closer to the center than to the left, it appears that the center has expanded its presence in the Knesset considerably, primarily at the expense of the left. 

The right-wing camp improved its performance in this year’s election mainly thanks to the Likud Party—its ten-seat increase from 2013 to 2015 came largely at the expense of Yisrael Beiteinu, the other right-wing party, and Bayit Yehudi, which straddles the right wing and the religious camp. These gains can be partly attributed to Netanyahu’s effective fear-mongering campaign in the last few days before the vote—during which he darkly warned Jewish Israelis that Arab Israelis were coming out to vote in droves and that “the left” (supported by illicit foreign campaign funds) was on the brink of victory and would drive the country to ruin.

But the strength of Likud, and of the right more broadly, lies to a great extent in their ability to work closely with the soft-right parties of the center. Although the center shares with the left a special concern for Israel’s social and economic problems, it also overlaps with the right on foreign and security affairs (such as the peace process), where they are aligned with the views of the broader public.

Jewish Israelis generally believe that the Palestinians, and any foreign intervention in the peace process, cannot be trusted. Although they desire a final peace treaty, they harbor deep skepticism about the likelihood of achieving one: that regional conditions make a treaty unlikely; that the Palestinians themselves aren’t interested in peace; and that past withdrawals from areas once occupied by Israel (southern Lebanon and Gaza) have only led to the control of these territories by hostile forces committed to the destruction of Israel. The rockets fired from Lebanon and Gaza over the years are proof, Israelis generally argue, of the consequences of relinquishing land. That is why these center parties—in 2015, they are Yesh Atid and Kulanu—might more appropriately be called soft right. Labor, and the Zionist Union, on the other hand, require the public to take a leap of faith on security matters because, when they do talk about the occupation, they do not have answers for when or how to reach an accord. Netanyahu and the right and soft right symbolize a more cautious, and therefore more palatable, approach.

The support for the soft-right parties and for Likud stem from broader shifts in the Jewish-Israeli population, which has increasingly—especially since the years of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s and the violent outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000—identified with the right-wing parties on security issues. Concerns with the high cost of living, traditionally a focus of the left, drove much of the 2013 election, but became secondary in 2015 as Netanyahu stoked concerns the Israel’s very identity was at stake. Israelis didn’t vote for Netanyahu per se but for what he represented—a safety net.

The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2013 Democracy Index captures this sense of political identification among Israeli Jews. Asked to self-identify on a left-right spectrum on political and security issues, 49.8 percent identified as either “right” or “moderate right” and 23.9 percent as “center.” Only 16.1 percent selected either “moderate left” or “left.” Thus, when national security is tied to the broader question of identity during an election, it reinforces the right’s claim that it better represents the public.

Another report by the Institute highlights the extent of this rightward drift. This study found that 45 percent of the Jewish-Israeli public identified either slightly, moderately, or to a large degree with the national religious camp. The extent of identification is new: in previous years, analysts divided the Jewish public into distinct categories, and only nine percent of respondents considered themselves in the “national religious” category. The trend doesn’t actually mean that the public has grown more religious but that there is a more complex mix of traditional, religious, and secular preferences based on its understanding of Jewish nationalist identity—particularly among the younger generation. This new sense of identity includes an emphasis on a Jewish majority within the State of Israel (excluding the West Bank) and is anchored in a deeply felt Zionism that has led voters to trust in the right to protect their interests.

This cultural shift translates into considerable political power for those parties able to adopt a more nationalist platform, which is what the political right did more successfully than the left in 2015. For example, the study reveals that, when it comes to political-security matters, over three-quarters of the respondents identified with either the “right wing” or “moderate right wing.” Netanyahu’s efforts to sound the alarm about the left on election’s eve should be viewed in this light. The increase in voter turnout—72 percent in 2015, up from 68 percent in 2013, 65 percent in 2009, and 64 percent in 2003—is likely to continue to benefit the political right.

Although the shift toward the right may seem surprising, these changes have been brewing for some time over several elections. A major domestic development—on the scale of, for example, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 or a war that goes badly for Israel—might shift the balance toward the left and center left. The Iran talks may also have an impact. If the P5 + 1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) blame Netanyahu for a breakdown in negotiations, the left may be able to argue that the prime minister’s belligerence and unrealistic demands have endangered and isolated Israel. Otherwise, the right-wing tilt of the Knesset is likely here to stay.

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