Netanyahu's Right of Way

How the Israeli Left Fell Behind

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015. Amir Cohen / Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in Israel’s election last week has been declared a triumph of security over economics. Netanyahu exploited Israelis’ fears about terrorism and regional instability, virtually ignoring the growing economic and social problems in the country. His opponent, Isaac Herzog, fashioned himself as the candidate who would bring economic and social change. Although his message resonated with a part of the electorate—Herzog’s party increased its strength from 15 to 24 seats in the Knesset—the largest segment of the electorate (about 25 percent) ultimately opted for Netanyahu, seeing in him a leader who would keep the country safe. 

But the election was about more than just Netanyahu. The ultimate victory belongs to the Israeli right wing, demonstrating that it has become something of a permanent majority—a strength that comes regardless of who leads it.

Several factors account for the right’s entrenchment in Israeli politics. First, the right has become synonymous with security. In a way, this evolution defies common sense, since a growing chorus of former military and security leaders are speaking out against Netanyahu and the right’s policies. But the Israeli right has been buoyed by the fact that the peace process—long identified with the left—has ground almost to a halt, undermining Israelis’ faith that the left can ever broker a peace agreement. The voters have responded by rationalizing: if no peace from the left, then at least security from the right.

The right has also benefited by exploiting long-standing contempt for the left among the Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern background), especially among those of North African ancestryan animosity that stems from long-simmering resentment over past discrimination. In addition, by unequivocally supporting settlers, right-wing parties have acquired a reliable strong support base. And finally, the Israeli right has taken advantage of the fact that a large part of the electorate has perceived coolness toward Israel from U.S. President Barack Obama. The right has translated this distancing into accusations that the United

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