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 States is abandoning Israel. Differences of view over how to stop the Iranian nuclear program, for example, have been hyped by Netanyahu and right-wing leaders, further feeding the perception that Obama is not committed to the relationship.

The resultant toxic mix of factors have driven the Israeli electorate firmly to the right, making it extremely difficult for anyone on the left—no matter how compelling—to break through.

THE FEAR FACTOR

Israelis live in a dangerous neighborhood: Palestinian rockets from Gaza, Hezbollah threats from Lebanon, jihadist militants in the Sinai, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in Syria, and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran. Despite Israel’s impressive military strength and its society’s economic and social resilience, Netanyahu and the right have been successful in exploiting the dangers by feeding the electorate a constant diet of concern about security, going so far as to evoke the possibility of a new Holocaust.

Even more important, the right has managed to convince the majority that it is better qualified than the left to protect the country. Its rhetoric is not matched by reality; Netanyahu was no more successful than his predecessors in dealing with Hamas rockets from Gaza. And during the election campaign, more than 150 former senior army and security officers argued that the right’s policies actually make the country less safe—a view also held by such Israeli military and intelligence veterans as Meir Dagan, the former director of Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, the former director of Shin Bet. Still, the Israeli right has appropriated the mantle of Israel’s security.

The right’s rhetoric resonates particularly strongly with the country’s large Russian immigrant population. Generally seen as liberal when it comes to economic and social policy, Russian voters swung sharply to the right as a result of Palestinian violence in the 1990s and the second intifada in 2000–2004. In the final days of the recent campaign, Netanyahu appealed to these and other voters who were swayed by the security argument.

Netanyahu's move was rooted in his concern that right-wing voters could split their votes among the several parties on the right. In that case, he feared, Likud would fail to secure the most seats, and Herzog’s party could be given the mandate to form a coalition government. Netanyahu’s last-minute maneuvers were designed to accrue as many right-wing seats as possible for Likud. This strategy worked: in the end, the right as a whole did not increase the number of seats it would have won, but Likud gained a larger share of the right’s votes, shooting up to 30 seats and all but guaranteeing that Netanyahu would get the first chance to form the governing coalition.

It is not only the Russian immigrants who opt to vote for security over domestic social reforms. The failure of the 1993 Oslo peace process, the intensification of Palestinian terrorism, and the deteriorating security situation in the region have reinforced the salience of the security issue in the political calculations of Israelis across the board. Quantitative research by Israeli social scientists has shown that even as an increased number of Israeli voters accept the idea of a two-state solution, those same voters do not actually believe that it will come to be. Since there is little in the way of peacemaking that is lost, these voters have drifted right in hopes of safety over peace.

SEPHARDIC DISCRIMINATION

The second factor that accounts for the right’s strength in Israeli politics is the enduring animosity of a majority of the Sephardim toward the left. The ruling elite in the 1950s was almost entirely made up of leftists of Ashkenazic background. Represented in the Mapai, Ahdut Avodah, and Mapam parties, these leaders had to cope with bringing a state into being while also fending off Arab threats, enhancing diplomatic recognition, building an economy, and absorbing immigrants primarily from the Arab states. In the end, these processes succeeded, but the transition was extremely painful for the Sephardic immigrants, particularly those from North African countries. Many spent years in transit camps or makeshift housing, and jobs were allocated first to the Ashkenazi supporters of the ruling political parties, leaving many Sephardim—even those who had been professionals in their countries of birth—without work or underemployed.

Memories of poverty and discrimination turned the Sephardim against left-wing parties, and these parties’ support of Menachem Begin propelled him to victory in 1977. No doubt, those same residual memories helped Netanyahu secure victory last week.

But there is more than just memory involved. For example, during a large rally in Tel Aviv on behalf of the Zionist Union (the opposition party led by Herzog), Yair Garbuz, an Israeli artist, railed against supporters of Likud, calling them “kissers of amulets and idol worshippers.” These words were widely understood as a direct insult against the Sephardim, who hold more traditionalist religious beliefs and who venerate sages. Garbuz’s rant evoked memories of a similar episode in 1981 when the popular actor and comedian Dudu Topaz ridiculed Likud supporters, calling them “riffraff.”

The impact of the split between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was felt deeply in this election. Early voting data indicate that the Likud prevailed in seven of Israel’s ten largest cities, most of them on the so-called periphery, which have large Sephardic communities and which represent a substantial segment of Israel’s economically disadvantaged population. Notwithstanding the economic straits that they face, the populations in these cities voted their emotions—in favor of Netanyahu—rather than their pocketbook. The Zionist Union won in Tel Aviv and Haifa, religious parties won in Bnei Brak (a largely haredi city), and Likud took the rest.

THE SETTLEMENTS MOVEMENT

The third reason for the ascendancy of the right is the dynamism and growth of the settlements movement. The settlers’ goal of preventing any territorial concessions over what they see as the birthright of the Jews fits neatly with the right wing’s opposition to the peace process and its distrust of Palestinians and Arabs. The settlers are not a homogeneous group, and many choose to live in the West Bank for reasons of convenience and affordability. But the ideological core of the settlements movement works hard on behalf of right-wing parties—an effort that was made very clear in the election: almost 72 percent of settlers who cast ballots opted for the right. According to one report, many settlers responded to Netanyahu’s appeal in the days before the election by spreading out across the country to mobilize votes for Likud.

The Israeli settlements movement has been very successful not only in expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank but also in placing settlement advocates in key positions throughout the Israeli bureaucracy, thereby obtaining a far larger share of the national budget than their numbers would otherwise indicate. For example, for many years, the government has designated West Bank and Gaza settlements as priority areas qualifying for advantageous tax treatment and government subsidies. When settlers established unauthorized outposts, the government’s response was not to rebuke them but to hook their new homes into the water and electricity grid and to provide security. In a 2004 report, Talia Sasson, a Ministry of Justice official, chronicled a pattern of systemic and systematic illegality among settlers and their supporters within the government bureaucracy that advanced their goals.

POLITICS CHANGING AND UNCHANGING

There are no permanent majorities in most democratic political systems. But the Israeli right is likely to maintain a majority until and unless the left is able to overcome three handicaps. First, it must persuade Israeli voters, especially those of Russian origin, that it can handle Israel’s security challenges at least as well as, if not better than, the right. (Former military intelligence director Amos Yadlin was recruited by Herzog’s party to be its security face, but his voice was almost inaudible during the campaign.) Second, the left must induce the Sephardim to put past grievances behind and to vote with their pocketbooks. And, third, it must overcome the perception that support for peace with the Palestinians is akin to appeasement and therefore endangers Israel.

Until then, there will likely be more elections in store that will resemble last Tuesday’s. Netanyahu’s victory exposed many false assumptions about Israeli politics—namely, that poor relations with an American president would hurt the country, that economic and social issues require attention, and that open disdain toward Israeli Arabs is risky. Netanyahu contradicted each of these premises through his words and actions, yet he emerged victorious.

Netanyahu’s victory is thus not only a personal triumph but also a confirmation of a systemic bias in favor of the right that is likely to last for many years ahead. It is the challenge of the Israeli left to understand this new normal and to convince the electorate that it cares about the country’s future and has the means to safeguard it.

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  • DANIEL KURTZER is S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. From 2001 to 2005, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

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