Israeli Elections 2013: Tell Me Who You Vote For and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

Aug 15, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in February 2013]

When I first moved to Israel from the Soviet Union at the end of 1990, one of the things I was most excited about is an opportunity to vote in real elections, ones featuring more than one candidate. Wanting to be a responsible citizen, I began to educate myself about the various parties, their platforms, ideologies, and personalities. But to my astonishment, our family friends—well-educated lawyers from a rich Jerusalem neighborhood—told me not to bother. Vote for Meretz, they said, you are an educated secular Ashkenazi Jew after all, aren’t you? At the time, I thought these people were just trying to “sell” me a new party that they themselves supported. But there is a deeper truth here. Although Wikipedia classifies the numerous political parties in Israel according to their ideologies (as it does with political parties elsewhere), a more accurate description of an Israeli political party would emphasize the segment of the Israeli society that it represents. This point is underscored by the existence of such parties as the Dor Party, which represents the older citizens, the Holocaust Survivors Party, Lev LaOlim Party, aimed at immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Yisrael BaAliyah Party, formed to represent the interests of Russian immigrants (the latter party eventually merged with the Likud). Given these strong demographic ties, it is not surprising that clear geographical patterns emerged from the national election of January 2013; as we shall see below, these patterns are largely persistent over time. (The maps of election results below are reproduced from website.)


The Likud-Beiteinu block, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, garnered the most seats in the 2013 election—though fewer than expected. It received strongest support in the Ashkelon sub-district, which borders the Gaza strip. The residents of this sub-district suffered particularly intensely from rocket and mortar fire from Gaza in November 2012. Their vote for the Likud-Beiteinu block appears to be a sign of support for the government’s Operation Pillar of Defense, which was designed to halt the rocket attacks. The neighboring Beersheva sub-district, whose northwestern part was also heavily targeted by the rockets, gave over 20% of its vote to the Likud-Beiteinu block, although, as we shall see below, other parties received substantial shares of the vote there as well. A heavy proportion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union—many of whom lean right-wing in Israel—in the Ashkelon sub-district (especially in  Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, and Ashdod), further contributed to the high Likud-Beiteinu vote there. Perhaps more surprisingly, Haifa on the north coast and parts of the Galilee in the northeast also voted heavily for this party, giving it more than a fifth of their votes. Likud-Beiteinu was least successful, however, in other parts of the north, where Arabs and Druze for a significant proportion of the population; as we shall see below, these areas divided their votes mostly between the three Arab parties.

The surprising second-place showing in the 2013 election went to the new Yesh Atid Party (whose name literally means ‘There is a future’), headed by the charismatic former TV-personality Yair Lapid. His father, Tommy Lapid was a veteran politician and a leader of the left-wing, secular-liberal Shinui party between 1999 and 2006. The platform of Yesh Atid, however, is more centrist, based on a socio-economic agenda. While many members on the Yesh Atid party list lean far left on social issues and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not appropriate to characterize this party as “left-wing”. Some American journalist and bloggers compared Yesh Atid to the U.S. Democratic Party and Yair Lapid to President Obama, noting that both politicians appealed to younger voters via social-networking media. However, parallelism between the U.S. Democratic Party and Yesh Atid is challenged by such unexpected personalities on the latter party’s list as the 41-year old Rabbi Dov Lipman, a recent immigrant from the U.S., where he was a staunch Republican. (Lipman is the first American-born member of Israel’s Knesset since the controversial Meir Kahane.) Though an ultra-Orthodox (so-called “Haredi”) rabbi, Lipman joined the party calling for mandatory military service for the Haredi because he believes that “there’s no contradiction between working, serving the country and being Haredi, and he wants to bring that ethic to Israel”, according to an article by JTA’s Ben Sales. However, the majority of Israel’s Haredi population—few of whom serve in the military and many of whom are unemployed and avowedly non-Zionist—are not convinced by his arguments.


The heaviest support for Yesh Atid came from the Central and Tel-Aviv districts, as well as from Haifa and the Golan Heights. A large proportion of Israel’s non-religious middle-class population resides in these areas. This segment of the population is particularly concerned with the socio-economic issues that brought about the “cottage cheese protests” in the summer of 2011; the high prices of Israeli-made dairy products, including cottage cheese, became emblematic of these wider socio-economic issues, though skyrocketing housing prices are a much bigger issue. Another core item on the socio-economic agenda is the special provisions granted to the rapidly growing Haredi population. Public debate over  the Tal Law, which allows the so-called ultra-Orthodox to indefinitely defer national service, nearly led to an early election in 2012, an outcome aborted at the last moment after the Kadima party briefly joined the government. Many secular Israelis are also irritated by the fact that many Haredi men are un- or underemployed, devoting themselves to religious study. As a result, the group is seen by many other Israelis as not paying their “fair share of taxes”. Another focal issue for many secular Israelis is the marriage law, which allows only religious marriages to be conducted within Israel. (All marriages conducted abroad are in principle recognized in Israel, though it remains to be seen whether the first-ever gay couple legally married in New York will be recognized as such.)  For Israeli Jews, the only options are religious, Orthodox weddings or marrying abroad. The situation is even worse for interfaith couples and people who are not recognized as Jewish by Orthodox rabbinical courts (example here include those with Jewish ancestry on the paternal side only and those who converted abroad through a Conservative or Reform ritual)—such couples can only marry abroad. Likewise, only Orthodox divorces and conversions are recognized. People not recognized as Jewish cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, including military facilities for fallen soldiers. From time to time, specific cases of perceived injustices, such as that of Rita Margolis, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who was deemed “Jewish enough” to immigrate to Israel and to serve in the military, but not enough to legally marry in Israel, arouse intense outrage among secular Israelis. Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party has taken on the cause of instituting civil marriage, but numerous attempts to do so have been made in the past by various secular movements and political parties; other groups fight for non-Orthodox conversions to be recognized as well. Yet, to date all such efforts have been blocked by religious parties, perpetuating the rift between the secular and the Haredi. For decades, both socio-economic issues and such religious-secular divides have been swept under the carpet, while the Israeli-Arab conflict—what Israelis call “defense and foreign affairs”—has taken center stage. However, in recent years the focus of the national public debate has shifted: although security remains important, most Israelis see little hope for a breakthrough any time soon and hence are no longer willing to postpone the socio-economic agenda.


However, in my opinion, the status quo in the relationship between the secular and the Haredi is likely to continue, due mainly to the need for forming complex coalitions in the Knesset. The two religious parties in the newly elected Knesset—Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—are yet again well-positioned with their total of 18 seats (Shas has eleven seats and UTJ has seven) to serve their respective constituencies’ financial and ideological interests by joining in the governing coalition or supporting it in crucial parliamentary votes. Such political maneuvering also allows the religious parties to obtain funds to benefit the Haredi communities they represent. Shas in particular is known for its willingness to participate in left-wing governments and to compromise on both religious and economic issues, earning it the moniker of “the unchallenged kingmaker of Israeli politics”. The two religious parties cater to the needs of two different demographic constituencies: Shas mostly represents the Sephardic and Mizrahi (or Middle-Eastern Jewish) communities, whereas UTJ represents the Ashkenazi Haredi Jews (including the Hassidim). Though Shas is often characterized as an ultra-orthodox party, the majority of Shas voters are rather Modern Orthodox or “traditional” Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.

Predictably, there is a certain complementarity between the areas that voted for Yesh Atid and those that voted for the two religious parties. The latter regions include the Ashkelon sub-district in the south, and the Kinneret sub-district in the north, which strongly supported Shas, as well as Judea and Samaria (West Bank) District, which voted very heavily for UTJ. The Jerusalem District gave an equal share of its votes to the two religious parties. This geographical pattern is not new. For example, Shas has consistently gained strongest support in the Ashkelon sub-district (14% in 2003, 16% in 2006, 13% in 2009), the Jerusalem District (13% in 2003, 15% in 2006 and 2009), and the Kinneret sub-district (11 % in 2003, 12% in 2006, 10% in 2009). In some elections, it also performed well in other areas, in particular in Judea and in Ramla, but has not managed to gain much support in those districts in the latest election. Similarly, UTJ gained 19% of the vote in Jerusalem and 10% in Judea in 2009. (The only other area where it performed well in earlier elections, Dan North, includes the rather affluent secular city of Herzliya; this pattern remains a mystery to me.)


An examination of the voting patterns for UTJ and the hawkish Jewish Home Party, headed by a high-tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, reveals another important point: while many people tend to conflate the “religious” and “Zionist” categories, the overlap is only partial, and there are important distinctions to be drawn as well. Some members of the Haredi community are not Zionist and a few, such as Neturei Karta, are avowedly anti-Zionist. On the other hand, many settlers in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and the Golan Heights are not members of the Haredi community, but are rather Orthodox (but not Haredi) or Conservative in their religious affiliation. The voting maps reflect such differences: while residents of Judea and Samaria divided their votes between UTJ and Jewish Home, the Jerusalem District voted mostly for UTJ but much less so for Jewish Home, whereas the Golan Heights gave the vote to Jewish Home and not to UTJ.


In the run-up to the elections, Naftali Bennett campaigned to present Jewish Home as an inclusive right-wing party, not just a settlers’ party, but those efforts appear to have failed. As the electoral maps indicate, the voting base of Jewish Home is geographically complementary to that of the Likud-Beitenu block, another right-wing political party. The latter received only around 20% vote in Judea and Samaria or the Golan Heights, the areas that voted most heavily for the Jewish Home. Conversely, in the Ashkelon sub-district, where Likud-Beitenu is especially popular, Jewish Home received only about 10% of the vote, compared to Judea and Samaria or the Golan Heights, where it got 24%. The image of Jewish Home as the settlers’ party is further enhanced by the inclusion of people such as Orit Struk on the party list. Struk, a 52-year-old mother of 11 and grandmother of 12, lives in one of the most ideological communities in the West Bank, that of Hebron. She is also the founder and chairwoman of Human Rights in Yesha, an organization that advocates for settlers’ rights. In this role, she has fought against alleged abuse of settlers by soldiers and policemen, and advocated for those who protested Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. She also runs the Land of Israel lobby in the Knesset that fights for settlement expansion and legalizing outposts.


The opposing end of the political spectrum is shared by three Arab-supported parties: United Arab List-Ta’al, Hadash, and Balad. Predictably, all three parties did well in Akko, Yizre’el, and Hadera sub-districts, where a large proportion of the population is Arab or Druze. They also did well in the same areas in previous elections: for example, in 2009 United Arab List received 14% in Akko, 11% in Hadera, and 10% in Yizre’el; Hadash won 16% in Akko, 10% in Hadera, and 15% in Yizre’el; and Balad came up with 13% in Akko, and 11% in Hadera and in Yizre’el. Though all three parties position themselves as champions of the Arab interests, the finer differences between them are instructive as well. United Arab List, which can be described as an Islamist party, has received little support from Arab Christians. It is particularly popular among the Bedouin in the Negev (Beersheva sub-district): in the 2009 elections, 80% of the Bedouin voted for this party, while only 5% voted for Hadash and merely 2% for Balad. (Curiously, many of the Bedouin voted for Shas, more than for any other Jewish party, and in some cases more than for any Arab party.) Furthermore, United Arab List-Ta’al is more popular in smaller settlements and less popular in cities, which give more than half of their votes to the Marxist-socialist Hadash Party. Interestingly, this is true both in Umm al-Fahm, where virtually the entire population is Muslim, and in Nazareth, where approximately a third of the residents are Christians. The Balad Party, whose ideology is Pan-Arabism and secularism, received 20-25% of the vote in Arab areas, regardless of the degree of urbanization.


Israel’s Labor Party was once considered the quintessential Zionist party and was therefore immensely powerful, but in recent decades it has lost popularity. Contributing to Labor’s decline  is the growing Sephardi population, as well as to the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who largely vote for other parties. The party’s association with the Oslo Accords has also discredited it in the eyes of many Israelis. In 2013, Labor won only 15 seats, receiving strongest support in the north, especially in the Safed, Kinneret, and Golan sub-districts, as well as in Haifa, Tel-Aviv, Petakh-Tikva, and Rehovot sub-districts. Once again, this pattern is not new: for example, this party received over 15% in all of those areas in the 2003 elections. Much of the support for the Labor Party comes from residents in Israel’s kibbutzim: in 2009, nearly a third of them voted for the Labor Party, another third voting for Kadima. In the most recent election, Kadima suffered a major blow, dropping down to a mere two seats, due mostly to the split of Tsipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party, which received six seats. Both Kadima and Hatnuah received the bulk of their votes in the north. Last but not least, Meretz received most of its votes in the Tel-Aviv district, though the geographical distribution of its constituency is far less pronounced than that of other parties.

Finally, an electoral “tale of two cities” merits discussion. Jerusalem, described by many sources as increasingly religious in character, due to high birth rate among the Haredi and the fact that many secular Jews are leaving the city in search of cheaper housing and a more permissive lifestyle, gave 38% of its vote to the two religious parties (UTJ and Shas), and another 12% to the Jewish Home. Yesh Atid received only 7% of the Jerusalemites’ votes, half the national average. In contrast, the mostly secular Tel Aviv-Yafo residents gave a fifth of their votes to Yesh Atid, and nearly a third of their votes to the two large left-wing parties: Labor and Meretz.


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