Conventional wisdom has it that the recent parliamentary election in Israel has swayed Israeli politics further to the political right. After all, the balance of power in the 120-member Knesset has shifted quite dramatically. The political bloc that included the centrist Kadima Party and Labor, which dominated the outgoing government in Jerusalem, was reduced from 70 seats in the last Knesset to 55 seats in the new one, while right, ultraright, and religious-right parties, led by Likud, won 65 seats, a gain of 15 seats.
Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, came in a close second behind Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni. But with the Yisrael Beitenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party rallying behind Likud, the right-wing grouping had the clear majority in the Knesset, allowing it to form the next Israeli coalition and return Bibi to the prime minister’s office.
Many pundits have suggested that the victorious parties on the political right have benefited from the rising nationalist sentiments among many Israelis who, in the aftermath of the recent war in Gaza, have concluded that the chances for reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians are very slim and that the Jewish state needs to elect a government that would embrace a tough posture vis-à-vis the Arabs and Iran.
While these national-security considerations were critical in determining the outcome of the Israeli election, the recent electoral changes reflect a broader demographic transformation of Israeli politics. More specifically, they point to a continuing erosion in power of the Zionist Ashkenazi (Eastern European) elites that have dominated Israel since her founding in 1948, and the growing influence of what sociologists have described as the “counterelites,” including the Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews), the Arab-Israeli citizens, and the more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
For years, and especially since Israel occupied the Arab territories in the 1967 war, support for parties on the political right tended to come from the lower-middle-class and poor Mizrahim, while voters for the centrist and left-wing parties belonged to the upper-class social and economic strata—educated professionals of mostly Ashkenazi extraction who reside in the large urban centers in the Tel Aviv-Haifa corridor.
In general, the political and ideological division between the Israeli left and right has had very little to do with economic issues. Most Kadima and Labor voters tend to favor free-market policies—the sort of policies implemented in Israel by Netanyahu when he served as finance minister during the roaring globalization era of the 1990’s, a time in which Israel went through a dramatic restructuring of her socialist economy. On the other hand, many of the Mizrahim who have backed Likud and Shas, and who reside in the poverty-stricken development towns of Israel, look to the government for economic assistance.
Put simply, much of what has been driving Israeli politics since 1967 comes from the political rift between Israeli Jews over Israel’s foreign policy and, more specifically, over the fate of the occupied Arab territories. The right-wing parties have called for retaining Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza, while the political left has advocated a diplomatic solution that would involve a territorial compromise under which Israel would cease to rule over the occupied Palestinian territories.
Sundry changes in Israel’s national-security environment occasionally tip the balance. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990’s helped to bring Labor, led by the late Yitzhak Rabin, back into power, while the Second Intifada ended up producing the electoral victory of Likud, headed by Ariel Sharon. In fact, Kadima was formed in 2006 by Sharon and Israeli Labor leader Shimon Peres, along with other like-minded Likud and Labor politicians, as a centrist party committed to the idea of a two-state solution. The establishment of the new party seemed to signal the recognition among members of the old Zionist elites that Israel had no choice but to cede control of the occupied Palestinian territories in order to maintain her identity as a Jewish state.
But the failure to achieve an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the rise of the radical Islamic Hamas movement, and the new violence between the two ethno-religious communities in Israel have been gradually weakening the influence of these old, moderate Ashkenazi and Zionist elites. Meanwhile, growing nationalist and religious radicalization on both sides, coupled with high birthrates among the Mizrahim and the Arab-Israelis as well the large wave of about one millions immigrants from the former Soviet Union (including at least 200,000 non-Jews) have not only strengthened the electoral power of the counterelites but produced major divisions among them.
Hence, a large number of Arab-Israelis, who constitute more than 20 percent of the state, are challenging the Zionist and Jewish-exclusivist identify of Israel while embracing the anti-Israeli struggle with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which explains why the Arab-Israeli political parties cannot join coalitions with Kadima and Labor. At the same time, with 15 seats in the Knesset, Yisrael Beitenu gets most of its support from Russian immigrants, many of whom hold strong anti-Arab views and want to deprive anti-Zionist Arabs of their citizenship, but who also tend to be very secular and demand a separation between religion and state. Shas, which enjoys the backing of ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim, opposes the ideological tenets of secular Zionism and wants to establish a full-fledged Iran-style Jewish theocracy in Israel.
U.S. policymakers who continue to daydream about working with what remains of the old political elites of Israel to help bring peace to the Holy Land need to recognize that both Kadima and Labor (and their political satellites) are losing influence in Israel, and that they will be replaced in a few years by new political forces who have contrasting visions about the future—none of which includes the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.