The Likud is, with good reason, focusing its election campaign on its home turf, encouraging party loyalists to get out and vote on March 2. The campaign fears that the heavy cloud of criminal indictment hanging over the head of their prime ministerial candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, might lead many party supporters to stay at home, particularly older voters with fond memories of modest, unassuming one-time Likud leaders and prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. If not for that cloud, the Likud would be doing something other than mounting a third election campaign within less than a year.
In-depth polling conducted in recent years indicates that the heart of the Israeli Jewish voter lies on the right. Even if Blue and White leader Benny Gantz manages to form a government comprised of his centrist party, the center-left Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, and Avigdor Liberman's right-wing Yisrael Beitenu, and without the support of the Arab Joint List — an imaginary scenario bordering on the absurd — such a government would have a right-wing smell. At least three Blue and White Knesset members — Moshe Yaalon, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel — are self-declared right-wingers, while West Bank settler Liberman proudly espouses the land swap concept of transferring Israeli Arab communities to the Palestinian Authority's control.
If the upcoming elections do not augur well for the center-left camp today, the future looks even grimmer given the younger generation.
In general, young people tend to position themselves at the forefront of demands for change, even leading campaigns challenging authoritarian, corrupt regimes. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found young Americans today to be the most liberal ever in the United States, critical and striving for social change. In 2020 Israel, on the other hand, young people prefer the status quo they know and identify with a corrupt regime that challenges the gatekeepers of the state’s democracy.
Ahead of the April 2019 elections, a pre-election poll by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute found that 63%, or almost two-thirds, of Israelis aged 18-24 wanted Netanyahu to lead them, compared with 17% who preferred his replacement by Benny Gantz. On the other hand, among parents and grandparents, aged 65 and older, the military general Gantz, who only recently dove into politics, leads Netanyahu, the accused currently living on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.
A study conducted in 2018 by Irit Adler from the B.I. Cohen Public Opinion Research Institute and Noa Lavie of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo found that young Israelis aged 18-29, whether Arab or Jew, religious or secular, male or female, held the most conservative views on issues of religion and politics in that age cohort among OECD member states. Adler and Lavie quote in their study the findings of a European social attitudes survey conducted by the OECD for the years 2008 and 2016. It scored young Israelis at 6.46 points out of 10 in an index of right-wing versus left-wing views, which was more than youths in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Russia. German youths were at the bottom of the index, with 4.21 points. Young Israelis (and Poles) also led in terms of religiosity, with 5.40 points out of 10. The Israelis were found to be less liberal in gender-related attitudes than their age cohort in other OECD states and more conservative than their parents.
In a December 2019 op-ed in the financial daily Globes, Lavie recounted that during a class she taught on democracy and human rights, she asked the students who among them supported democracy. Only three of the 90 raised their hands. Asked why most of them did not support democracy, one of the students responded, “Because it sounds to us like something leftist, and we were afraid to raise our hands.”
Lavie blames Israel's school system for churning out ignorant, conservative citizens. “Countries characterized by huge gaps in education, ignorance, major economic inequality and growing inequality between men and women provide fertile breeding ground for dark regimes,” she wrote in her article, emphasizing that it is easy to develop non-democratic practices in such states.
Political scientist Daniel Bar-Tal, who has studied Israeli textbooks among other things, also believes the root of the evil lies in the school system, which lacks openness and critical judgment. Bar-Tal explained to Al-Monitor, “Already in kindergarten, the tykes are inculcated with the hegemonic narrative that Netanyahu has been nurturing since he came to power.” According to that narrative, Bar-Tal said, the Israeli people are under existential threat; there is always someone who wants to eliminate them; and the Holocaust has no time limit. In Netanyahu’s narrative, the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and there is no occupation; the people of Israel are uniquely moral and righteous; they want peace but are surrounded by a dangerous jungle.
Bar-Tal — whose forthcoming book “In the Comfort Zone,” co-written with the psychologist Amiran Raviv and issued by Steimatzky Publishing, puts Israeli society on the psychoanalyst’s couch — said that most media outlets have also bought into the Netanyahu narrative. He points out that the young generation, hardly well versed in the intricacies of politics, believes that Netanyahu’s way has provided stability and done well by the middle class. Proof of this view can be found in Israel’s consistently high ranking in the UN’s World Happiness Report. Many young Israelis are hard pressed to point to anything positive about the recently allied group of enigmatic people who have converged under the banner of the Blue and White as opposed to the stable Likud regime they know.
Paradoxically, the campaign being waged by the political right against the gatekeepers — the police, state prosecution, media and the left — has provided young Israelis with a boost of revolutionary adrenalin. Like Netanyahu's friend in the White House and his fellow travelers leading Hungary and the Czech Republic, the Israeli prime minister has managed to turn the rules of the democratic game into an outdated and boring iPhone 4, while dangling a new and exciting iPhone 11 before the public. Netanyahu walks on red carpets laid out for him at the White House and the Kremlin and from Oman to New Delhi. Then there are the boring generals leading Blue and White. To the young generation, they are reminiscent of Orna Peretz of Kiryat Shmona, who tried to ask Netanyahu in 2018 why there was no emergency room in her Lebanon-border town. He dismissed her as “boring.” Now, at the end of the day, even Peretz has reached out to Netanyahu for a loving embrace and joined the Likud campaign.