40. The Israeli Right: A Fixed Majority?
The new Israeli government, despite mind-blowing internal contradictions, staggers on and may actually last for a while -- bound by common loathing of Bibi Netanyahu. But the inclusion of left and center was made possible only by the split of the right. Once the right and religious parties can again work together -- post-Bibi -- is Israel likely to return to a "normal" state of right-wing dominance?
Yes. As the title "Perspective" indicates, these missives aim to take a step back and look at underlying realities. The underlying reality is that demographically, the right and allied religious parties will command a clear majority in Israel for the foreseeable future.
Why is that so? At the risk of repeating points made in the past, let's review the shifts in demography. The left, Labor Zionists, dominated in Israel until 1977, consistently winning about half the seats in the Knesset. Right-wing and centrist parties, Revisionists and others, won about a third of the seats, while religious parties -- less hawkish than today -- won between 12 and 15 percent and joined governments led by the left.
But the "upheaval" of 1977 marked the beginning of change, as Israelis of Middle East origin (Mizrachim) turned sharply against the Labor establishment. Many were refugees, or the children of refugees, from Arab lands, with political views shaped by that experience. The estimated Mizrachi vote for the right-wing Likud rose from 35 percent in 1969, to 45 percent in 1973, 56 percent in 1977, and 69 percent in 1981. Mizrachim, today about 40 percent of the population, remain a mainstay of the right (and of one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties).
The balance was further tipped by the influx, from the 1970s, of refugees from the former Soviet Union, again with political opinions born of persecution. Constituting about 20 percent of the electorate, they further reinforced Likud or forged their own right-wing parties, such as Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu in the current government.
The result is that in ten of the eleven elections since 1996, the right and religious parties together have consistently won a majority. (The exception was when Ariel Sharon ran as a centrist in 2006). In the 2021 election, they gained 72 of the 120 seats and would have easily formed a government -- but for Bibi's unpopularity among his own ideological brethren.
This is confirmed by a recent survey of how Israelis identify themselves politically. Fully 63 percent identified with the right and center right, and 18 percent with the center. And how many still identified with the left or center left -- with the parties associated with the nation's founders? All of 14 percent.
Is it possible that future shifts will reverse these trends, turning the pendulum back? Anything is possible. Perhaps the second generation of former Soviet Union refugees will become less hawkish than the first generation (though this did not happen among the Mizrachim). Perhaps a dramatic opening on the Arab side will revolutionize Israeli attitudes, as Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem did in 1977? Maybe, but so far no Sadat has emerged from Palestinian ranks.
So for the moment prospects are not auspicious. Only dislike of Netanyahu gives the left and center, for the moment, a tenuous hold on some very limited reins of power.